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Classes resume at LSU after Katrina

Displaced students, evacuee influx bring challenges to campus

By Jennifer Pangyanszki and Manav Tanneeru

Louisiana State University houses the nation's largest medical facility for Katrina evacuees, with 163 beds.



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Louisiana State University
Disaster Relief

BATON ROUGE, Louisiana (CNN) -- For the first time since Hurricane Katrina struck, classes resumed this week at Louisiana State University, with the campus now home to an additional 2,300 students who were displaced from colleges in New Orleans and surrounding areas.

With flags flying at half-staff and ambulances racing through campus streets, the telltale signs of the tragedy still were evident more than a week after Katrina devastated the area.

"It's an emotional experience, and it's just like 9/11. We all felt it. The nation felt that one," said LSU Chancellor Sean O'Keefe, the former NASA administrator who served as a White House staff member on September 11, 2001.

"Even though it was isolated to two, three locations, it doesn't lessen something we all can feel. This has gotten a lot more personal for a lot more people."

In addition to accepting displaced students, university officials also took on the challenge of housing and managing the largest field hospital in the United States. The situation has become more controlled in the last couple of days compared with last week, O'Keefe said, when the line to see triage medical personnel sometimes stretched to 100 people.

About 2,000 LSU students volunteered to help at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, where the school's basketball teams typically hold their games. It was converted eight days ago into a makeshift hospital that serves as the first stop for evacuees needing medical attention.

Brody Shores, 20, a junior from Alexandria, Louisiana, volunteered two overnight shifts, taking on tasks such as helping frail and weary nursing home residents arriving by bus, organizing supplies of clothes and making sandwiches for evacuees. "Anything to make sure they were as comfortable as they could be," he said.

"What impressed me the most. ... I have good friends in New Orleans who lost everything, and yet they were out there from 12 to 6 in the morning, even though they knew their parents had lost everything," Shores said. "It was amazing to see those people out there. ... I think it has brought a lot of LSU students together."

Another 1,000 student volunteers helped at the nearby Field House, which has been transformed into a shelter capable of holding 350 people. On Monday evening, it housed 121 people, but by Tuesday, the number dropped below 100.

Although Tigers fans will not watch their first game this Saturday at home as planned, some students did not notice an impact on the first day back to class from the addition of 2,300 new students, many from Tulane University, Loyola University New Orleans and the University of New Orleans.

"I have seen more people on campus, and more trucks, but not in class. I think it's too early to tell," said Andrew Rocha, 42, a doctoral student in musicology.

Inside the school's domed stadium, some 5,000 evacuees have received treatment, and another 45,000 have been screened there, officials said.

The arena floor is lined with cots covered in hospital linens, and dividers separate them into departments for pediatrics, intensive care and dialysis. The facility has 163 beds, and its second floor is littered with makeshift bedding for doctors, nurses and other personnel who are working 12-hour shifts.

"You don't get the full effect of it until you see it; you get to talk to some of the victims and hear how they had lost everything," Brody said. "It's just so much trauma. The pain in these people's eyes is just ungodly. It's just really hard to cope."

Evacuees arrive at the center from New Orleans, about 80 miles southeast of Baton Rouge, and elsewhere in Louisiana through a variety of transport. Helicopters land in the track-and-field stadium behind the center, and ambulances stream in regularly. Some arrive by cab, via rides from strangers, and in one instance, a refrigerated semi-truck, which carried 80 evacuees.

They are treated on a case-by-case basis, with some requiring a few hours' attention, while others stay for several days. The evacuees who are well enough to be moved after treatment are taken to area or out-of-state hospitals, with some traveling as far as Utah.

The operation is moving into its final days at LSU, O'Keefe said.

"They are in a wind-down mode, right now," he said. "They are beginning to transition to a consolidated facility in town here and at hospitals that are now going back on line."

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