“Everything that was destroyed during the flood is still destroyed and not replaced.”
-- Delgado Chancellor Ron Wright

Delgado forced to turn away students; Impasse with FEMA over repairs leaves campus short on space
September 5, 2009

For the first time in Delgado Community College's 88-year history, the area's most populous institution of higher education has turned away 1,500 applicants because it ran out of building space.

The needed rooms are there, but they are in buildings that are still awaiting repairs from the damage that Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters inflicted four years ago.

Educators are furious that they had to reject students this fall, as many are seeking new training because of upheaval in the economy. In Louisiana and elsewhere, community colleges traditionally have an open-door policy.

"This is my 39th year in community colleges, and I never turned away a student" before this semester, said Delgado Chancellor Ron Wright, 62. "Never."

The reason is one that has become common in post-Katrina New Orleans: a vast gulf between Delgado 's damage estimate and the amount FEMA is willing to pay. For instance, the federal agency has said it would pay $18.8 million to furnish ruined buildings on the City Park campus, but that figure is more than doubled by Wright's estimate of the need: $40 million.

One factor in the disparity is the cost of replacing equipment. While FEMA's appraisals set prices at the levels seen decades ago, when the equipment was bought, "I've got to put them back at 2009 prices," Wright said. "The money will not cover what we need to do."

However, FEMA spokesman Manuel Broussard said, the agency has re-examined costs when asked to do so.

To break the impasse, Louisiana Recovery Authority Director Paul Rainwater wants to work with Wright and the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness to develop a plan for Delgado that they can present to FEMA, authority spokeswoman Christina Stephens said.

"If we go to FEMA and say Delgado is still having these issues and can make a case, I think they'll go with that," she said.

But no date for the strategy session has been set. "We have a lot of work to be done," Stephens said.

Meanwhile, Delgado is continuing its steady post-Katrina growth with 16,715 students this semester, 16 percent more than last fall and only 4 percent below its pre-storm high of 17,398, which it reached days before the hurricane struck in August 2005, Delgado spokeswoman Molly Jahncke said.

One driving force in the surge is the sour economy, which has sent thousands of people around the country into two-year schools to polish their skills or to learn new ways of making a living, said Norma Kent, the American Association of Community Colleges' vice president of communications.

President Barack Obama stressed the importance of these schools in July, when he announced an initiative to strengthen them "so they get the resources students and schools need — and the results workers and businesses demand."

"We've had double-digit enrollment surges across the country, some as high as 30 percent," Kent said. "When the economy doesn't do well, our enrollments go up, but this (downturn) has been so extreme and protracted that our enrollments are ... dramatic."

When Delgado 's registration opened late last month, students "just kept coming and coming and coming," Wright said.

That situation should have been "a dream," he said, but the flood of students created a space problem because eight of the 21 buildings on the City Park campus are unusable, Jahncke said.

Moreover, she said, three of those structures haven't been touched since the floodwaters receded.

"We kept saying, 'Oh, my God, where are we going to find another classroom? Where are we going to find another chair?' " Wright said.

About 40 percent of the square footage of the City Park campus' buildings is out of commission, he said. "That's basically where it was when the storm ended. Everything (in those buildings) that was destroyed during the flood is still destroyed and not replaced."

Wright, who became chancellor in July 2008, said he thinks Delgado is being ignored as recovery officials pay attention to institutions such as the University of New Orleans and Southern University at New Orleans.

"We've been left on the side of the road," he said. "And the economy can't go forward the way it needs to without the people that we are preparing."

The situation is "very frustrating," Stephens of the Louisiana Recovery Authority said.

"We're well aware that this is unacceptable."

Copyright 2009, The Times-Picayune
Publishing Corporation

From: John Pope, "Delgado forced to turn away students; Impasse with FEMA over repairs leaves campus short on space," The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, September 5, 2009, National, p. 1.  John Pope can be reached at jpope@timespicayune.com.  Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C. § 107 for a non-profit educational purpose.