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In New Orleans: Recovering From a Post-Katrina ‘Brain Drain’

By Alyson Kenward


Satellite image of Hurricane Katrina making landfall in
southeastern Louisiana on August 29, 2005.
Credit: NASA Earth Observatory.

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.

Torbjorn Tornqvist on his arrival in New Orleans in August 2005.

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.”

While the university claimed the reorganization was driven by a motivation to help the university connect with the city and the region, it involved the closure of nearly all of the engineering departments on campus, including mechanical, civil and environmental engineering – expertise New Orleans would need to rebuild itself. For Nicole Gasparini, an earth scientist who joined Tulane in 2008, the university’s decision to eliminate the engineering department was surprising. 

“I’m sure there were politics that went into it, but coming in with my background, I can’t understand why you would get rid of something like that in a place like this,” she says. Gasparini, who trained as an engineer before taking up her current research position, questions the decision to do away with a training program for engineers in a city that depends on that kind of knowledge base for its complicated infrastructure. “It just seems strange.” 

The university defended its decision to close most of the engineering departments, even during a time when engineers could help rebuild New Orleans. According to Nicholas Altiero, dean of Tulane’s Science and Engineering School, the decision was difficult but was made because those departments were particularly costly. In addition, the university wanted to shift its resources into the academic areas that it was better known for. “Not everyone agrees with all the decisions that were made by the president and the board (and I expressed my disagreement when that announcement was made), but there is no doubt in my mind that their quick and decisive action saved our university,” Altiero said in an interview with IEEE Spectrum in 2007. In addition to training and educating local students, Tulane and other universities in New Orleans attract thousands of students from other parts of the country, and provide the city with a steady stream of revenue. Tulane is the city’s largest employer, with more than 4,500 employees. With these institutions comprising an essential component of the New Orleans community – both scientifically and culturally – their post-Katrina development path had an unavoidable impact on the entire region. 

Plugging the Brain Drain

If the news of Tulane’s renewal plan, announced before the school had even reopened, was intended to boost the morale of those that remained at the university, the effect did not immediately take hold. Surrounded by a city that was still awash in hurricane damage, the university fought to repair itself while many departments struggled to keep operating. 

Torbjorn Tornqvist on faculty losses following Hurricane Katrina.

“The first few years after the storm were incredibly stressful,” says Törnqvist, who was the only new professor hired in the summer of 2005 that returned to Tulane. “We were down to a small number of faculty but we just had to keep things going.”

But as departments began recruiting for new faculty members, the university had to contend with the city’s tarnished reputation. Even more difficult was the recruitment of graduate students, which is the foundation of most strong research programs. 

"The [2006] year was not a good recruiting year," says Nelson, of his department. "We had no new graduate students join."

But in the next year, Nelson says his department may have been saved by the fact that following the storm, many earth scientists from outside of Louisiana suddenly became interested in the research prospects in the Gulf Coast region. “Louisiana is a kind of natural laboratory for climate change [research],” he says. “New Orleans itself has become a good recruiting tool.”

The opportunity to closely monitor rapid changes in the area’s landscape is a natural draw for geologists, hydrologists and sediment specialists. Törnqvist himself studies the impact of sea level rise on coastal wetlands, and he says there is no better place to study this than in Louisiana. Even in the midst of the storm, he says he always knew he would stay at Tulane.

“I actually never considered leaving. I knew it was very bad [in New Orleans] but I also felt that this whole new situation that developed had so many connections with what I work on that this was where I had to be,” he explained.

Regaining a Research Community

It has been five years since Hurricane Katrina blew into New Orleans. In many ways the city is still recovering. But as the city works to revive itself, much of the research community has already blossomed again. 

Nelson says that for him, the New Orleans area has “become a very interesting place to do research” since 2005. After walking around the city in the storm’s wake, he even changed his area of research in order to study why the levees failed during the hurricane. 

And while nearly all of the engineering departments at Tulane had dissolved by the summer of 2007, with some professors moving to other universities and others opening private engineering firms in the area, the university has not eradicated engineering experts from its faculty entirely. Instead, the university is incorporating engineers into other foundational science departments, including chemistry, physics, and environmental science. Gasparini, one of four new professors hired by Nelson’s department since 2007, is an example of this effort to maintain engineering collaborations throughout the campus. 

Torbjorn Tornqvist on his decision to stay at Tulane University.

With so many new – and many younger – researchers at the university, attitudes of the research status quo are also changing. In Nelson’s department, almost half of the professors have joined the faculty in the past three years, and they have been eager to update the department’s curriculum. 

“I think there are more new ideas of how to do things differently than there was before,” says Gasparini, who is grateful that the professors who were on staff before 2005 have been so open to making changes. Having joined Tulane after Katrina, however, she says she is surprised that the city and regional authorities are not making more use of the network of experts that are still in New Orleans, as they plan and execute their rebuilding efforts. She criticized local authorities for not taking advantage of the current expertise at Tulane in an attempt to restore wetlands or find creative approaches to the recovery mission.

Törnqvist, on the eve of his 5th anniversary at Tulane, attributes the research recovery to the bold measures taken by the university after Katrina. He says he knows it was tough to watch researchers walk away, and tougher still to terminate other positions, but that, in the end, the difficult choices the university made have helped it rebound after the storm.