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New Orleans Finally Recovering from Post-Katrina Brain Drain

Minus its engineering department, Tulane starts to blossom again after exodus of research community

By Guest Writer

Sep 1, 2010

by Alyson Kenward,

When geoscientist Torbjörn Törnqvist decided to relocate his research group from the University of Illinois to Tulane University in New Orleans, he knew full well there might be some bumps along the way. In addition to setting up a new lab and learning the ropes at a new university, he was leaving a city he had called home for six years.

But while he was prepared for these setbacks when he moved in the summer of 2005, he didn’t anticipate that his welcoming committee would include Hurricane Katrina – one of the worst hurricanes the United States has ever experienced.

Törnqvist took up refuge from the storm with a friend in Texas, but when, six weeks later, he made his way back to “The Big Easy,” he discovered that his new Earth and Environmental Sciences department was not the same one he had signed on to join just a few months earlier.

“There were a lot of changes,” he recalls. “We ended up losing half of our faculty members.”

Throughout the rest of 2005 and much of 2006, five researchers left the department. Some, whose houses or research projects were destroyed by the floods, never came back to New Orleans after the evacuation. Others found that living in the post-Katrina landscape was simply too complicated and depressing.

It was early evidence of a kind of post-Katrina “brain drain” of scientists from research institutions across the city, including Tulane, Xavier University and Louisiana State University’s Health Sciences Center, that otherwise could have helped New Orleans rebuild and prepare for future storms.

Though many academic groups at Tulane and around New Orleans lost talented scientists, the exodus from Törnqvist’s department was one of the worst immediately following the hurricane. It foreshadowed the difficult times ahead for the entire research community left behind in New Orleans. And for the city itself, which in the years after Katrina was in dire need of experts that could help evaluate why the city’s flood defenses failed, and plan how to reduce the risks of damages from future storms, the loss of some of New Orleans’ top scientists threatened to slow the city’s recovery.

Katrina Aftermath at Tulane

Tulane University’s campus, situated in a historic area of downtown New Orleans, suffered $500 million in damage as a result of the storm, included flooding in the library and the computing facilities, which left the entire campus community without email access for months. In the weeks immediately following the hurricane, the university’s priority was to locate its employees and students, a tough task when those thousands of people had no internet or phone connections.

Stephen Nelson, the chair of earth and environmental studies at Tulane, recalls the struggle to contact everyone. “It took me two months just to locate faculty, staff and graduate students and to make sure they were all still being paid,” he says.

And then, for the first time since the Civil War, Tulane actually closed its doors and suspended classes indefinitely. As was widely publicized in 2005, the undergraduate class from Tulane was welcomed warmly by hundreds of colleges around the country. Fewer people have heard, however, that many of Tulane’s faculty also took refuge at other institutions, in hopes of continuing their research. By the time classes in New Orleans started again in January 2006, a number of faculty members had already decided not to return.

Adding to the turnover was a restructuring plan Tulane announced in December 2005, which was designed to transition Tulane into a post-Katrina era and offset the soaring costs the university faced after the storm.

“As appropriate, Tulane’s programs will be shaped by the university’s direct experience with the unprecedented natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina,” read the university’s press release for their renewal plan. “This experience will provide faculty, staff and students with equally unprecedented research, learning and community service opportunities that will have a lasting and profound impact on them, the city of New Orleans, the Gulf Coast region, and other communities around the world.”

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