COVID-19 Comes to Campus: What Hurricane Katrina Tell Us About the Current Campus Crisis

Dr. Mahauganee Shaw Bonds

We are living in pandemic pandemonium, where panic is the prevailing mode of operation. Every college and university is operating with all hands-on deck, altering their operational norms; the result is that campus employees—academics, practitioners, and leaders—are beyond exhausted. Yet, for those of us who have witnessed campuses in crisis, all of this feels eerily familiar. As two highe education professionals and scholars who worked on the ground through Hurricane Katrina and studied campus crisis response, we are extremely reflective and vigilant about how we move forward in this new reality.

When Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast region, it left college and university campuses devastated and desolate. Many campuses evacuated prior to the storm reaching their city, never understanding that they would not be able to reopen the physical campus or to resume normal activities for an indefinite period.  Respectively, we were each members of campus communities in Fall 2005—Mahauganee, the assistant dean and director for student engagement and leadership development at Dillard University and Nadrea, a continuing senior at Xavier University (LA). Immediately after graduating in the summer of 2006, Nadrea became a program coordinator in student affairs at Xavier and joined Mahauganee with helping each institution cope in a post-Katrina New Orleans.

While there are major differences between an environmental disaster and a public health emergency, there are some parallels between Katrina’s impact on daily operations and what we currently face with COVID-19. We’d like to explain those parallels and how understanding the response to an incident like Katrina can help inform the response to the current (inter)national emergency. In both instances, campuses made the initial choice to close and, as reality of the situation set in, institutional leaders, their employees, and their students realized those closings could be indefinite.

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