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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Rebuilding N.O. colleges to take years

Experts suggest that the damaged caused to Dillard University, Southern University at New Orleans and Xavier University by floodwaters after Hurricane Katrina could take years to repair.

"Rebuilding is a very high priority list, but (restoration) is going to take some time," said Jerry Jones, one of the state officials heading the educational facilty rebuilding effort.

The pace of repairs has differed from campus to campus. Although SUNO students are still in trailers because work on their Pontchartrain Park campus didn't start until the day after Christmas, Dillard is lively once again with students are strolling beneath its stately oaks.

Seventeen months after floodwaters overwhelmed SUNO, steps have been taken to start the process that will rid its buildings of mold.

Contracts have been let to install temporary chillers in these structures, Chancellor Victor Ukpolo said. They will stop the mold until the buildings can be remediated, probably starting by May.

This good news came as SUNO students and faculty members started their third semester in a trailer tract called the North Campus, which is about a half-mile north of the Pontchartrain Park site and hard by the Lake Pontchartrain levee. It followed months of struggling with state and federal bureaucracies to begin the work that eventually will get SUNO moved back.

At one point, the pace was so frustratingly slow that Ukpolo said, "We're beating our heads against a wall."

Ukpolo's office, in a wide trailer labeled "Chancellor," is at the southeast corner of the compound, surrounded by a high fence, where the streets forming impromptu blocks for the 445-trailer community have academic-sounding names such as History Street and Economics Street.

"It's a concern, going through another hurricane season with those trailers," SUNO spokesman Harold Clark Jr. said.

But that situation may exist for some time to come because the process of restoring SUNO and the process is at the mercy of state and federal bureaucracies, Jerry Jones said.

"There are many, many steps we have to go through before we can . . . begin the rebuilding effort," she said.

Ukpolo said the reoccupation of the Pontchartrain Park campus should begin in May, with most of the work done by the fall of 2008. Even mold remediation, generally an early step in bringing a building back, had to be put on hold because SUNO's power plant, which houses the air-conditioning system, was a victim of the flood.

"We could have gone in and done mold remediation," Jones said, "but until you have humidity control, plan on doing it every other day. . . . With our humidity, mold will re-form immediately. Therefore, it made no sense to do mold remediation."

Hence the portable chillers.

The first structure scheduled for restoration is the building that houses a gymnasium and a computer room, as well as space for meetings and classes.

"It was the least-damaged building," Ukpolo said. "We're going to try to put in as many university activities as possible."

Work was delayed by a squabble over cost. The Federal Emergency Management Agency originally estimated that restoring that building to its pre-storm level would cost about $500,000, Ukpolo said, but when the project was put out for bids, the lowest was $3.3 million, more than six times that amount.

The state Education Department provided a $1.9 million grant, which gave the university $2.4 million for the job.

But that still wasn't enough to meet the lowest bid, Ukpolo said, so the process had to start anew.

In such situations, FEMA can "adapt to whatever the new situation is" and do another assessment, agency spokesman Ronnie Simpson said.

Eventually, work was started, Ukpolo said, but as a result of that experience, "FEMA now expects architects to provide a realistic estimate."

The cafeteria will be renovated, Ukpolo said, but the power plant was too damaged to make reconstruction feasible.

Restoring SUNO won't be speedy.

The level of activity at Dillard's Gentilly campus surprised Dianna Green, a senior biology major who is the reigning Miss Dillard.

"I expected construction, but everywhere you looked, there were trucks," she said. "You'd be sitting in class and hearing somebody drilling over your head."

Although most Dillard buildings are in use again, work is under way on Rosenwald Hall, which houses administrative offices, and the library, which has been gutted and is scheduled to reopen for the fall semester, Dillard spokeswoman Karen Celestan said.

Because Rosenwald Hall is still a work in progress, President Marvalene Hughes' office is on Poydras Street, but she drives to campus daily for lunch with students.

n addition to restoring buildings, Dillard is making improvements. For instance, the library will add 6,000 square feet on two new floors to add high-tech information-storage equipment, Hughes said, and a new science and nursing building with up-to-date labs will rise.

Because insurance will not pay for everything, Hughes has been busy raising money across the country. So far, her barnstorming has brought in about $40 million, which, she said, is about $100 million shy of her goal.

Dillard also is using the activity to bolster its status as a major force in its part of the city to encourage people to come back .

"We can be more involved and engaged beyond our walls so we are aiding the community in recovery," Hughes said. "I see Dillard as the anchor of this neighborhood, which makes it even more important that we return to campus. Once people begin to see life out here, people will come back."


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