After hurricanes, pandemic, McNeese readies to reopen campus

LAKE CHARLES, La. (AP) — The sounds of progress on McNeese State University’s campus come these days from trades people and heavy equipment. If you hear the persistent hum of motors and clatter of construction around the core of campus, that’s a good thing.

COVID-19 with all its demands on social distancing, course delivery and student satisfaction was just one imposing challenge for the McNeese community in the fall semester. Then Hurricane Laura smacked the campus with Category 4 winds of 150 mph Aug. 27, and Hurricane Delta, with up to 20 inches of rain in Calcasieu Parish, followed on Oct. 9. Laura tore or ripped off 50 roofs; Delta poured water into buildings. Talk about unruly visitors.

Gone were the dorms and a functioning library and central campus. Gone were the students, too, wholly transferred to remote learning and pilgrim status, some seeking internet connections wherever possible around town, some moved to empty dorm rooms at other state universities, where they could access campus libraries and cafeterias, laboratories and relative comfort.

Daryl Burckel, McNeese’s 10th president, and his staff envision a better spring semester for McNeese and its 7,000 students, a semester that will return them to campus and to what passes for normal in a pandemic era. To that end, McNeese signed on disaster experts and had them poised to evaluate impending damages before Laura’s first winds ever reached campus.

Burckel and his team sweated out Laura’s winds in McNeese’s facilities and plant operations building that wild night and emerged to find their campus in ruins.

Trees were down, limbs were down, debris abounded as far as they could see. Windows were shattered, lights down and power out. Devastation seemed complete.

But contractors and engineers evaluated every square foot of 2 million square feet of 140 buildings on campus within a couple of weeks and signed on architects and contractors who would make McNeese whole again. The National Guard and engineers and contractors showed up. The work of securing temporary roofs on buildings and clearing debris began. Bids were awarded, and a Jan. 8 construction target date for the central campus — 71 days — was set.

Since then, it’s been the hum of motors and clatter of construction. It was set to pause on Christmas Eve and Christmas and will pause again on New Year’s. Otherwise, it’s been all business, with a goal of opening dorms and key academic buildings and returning McNeese students to McNeese.

That’s why any noise on or around campus is a joyful noise. Some 90% of students live within a 3-mile radius of campus; apartment complexes are going back on line and students are around.

There are 300 to 400 workers on campus most days; that signals progress. Most of the campus buildings have roofs, sheetrock, flooring, ceilings — another sign that things are improving.

Academic buildings and dorms are the first priority, but most buildings will be back and functional by midway through the spring; just a few will need more work by semester’s end.

Significance of buildings coming back on line is that the technology staff, faculty, and facilities staff will be making the campus come alive. Furnishings will be replaced, the campus made ready.

Burckel and his team said McNeese, through its faculty and staff, has kept its finger on where its students have been. About 215 students left during the semester, most remained enrolled. He said he’s confident that most will return in the spring; that’s why the priority has been to restore the dorms and the principal academic buildings first. Frazar Memorial Library is ready.

He said he expects at least 80% of the dorms will be ready for students. Burton Residence Hall with its 150 beds was ready last week.

Burckel has told students that McNeese students won’t pay additional dollars to return for the spring. Their tuition already pays most of McNeese’s operating costs. He said most of the campus’ restoration will be funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, insurance and the state government, which he said has been especially supportive of restoring McNeese.

“That’s been our message: Come home. Come back. We will be ready to receive you,” he said.

Here’s the outlook for what McNeese students will find when they return, one that is realistic as well as hopeful, said Burckel and his team:

— There will still be COVID-19 restrictions, which are stiffening in the wake of some state pandemic setbacks.

— Academically, it may feel like the start of fall semester. Most courses will be online, some hybrid.

— There will be rotating schedules to ensure students get a shared opportunity for at least some face-to-face interactions.

— Labs will open as soon as possible.

— All sports teams are planning a spring schedule, including football, which is scheduling three home games of seven to be played. They will be played early in the day, as football field lighting may not be restored by spring. Campus athletic events will be open and free to the public; the hope is that it will provide Lake Charles area people with something fun to do.

“We hope by May to be pretty well complete,” Richard Rhoden, director of plant facilities, said about construction. He said companies that bid were told if they were not serious about deadlines, don’t bid.

There were lessons learned, too: including signing up more contractors prior to storms. He said Entergy was heroic in restoring area power under crippling conditions; Suddenlink, the internet provider, was less successful. The storms taught the campus about the importance of communication links.

In the worst of times, McNeese learned that despite the pandemic, it has friends. Gov. John Bel Edwards has kept tab on the campus. Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne has kept abreast of what is needed. State education officials, including University of Louisiana system President and CEO Jim Henderson, have been especially helpful.

So were other campuses that accommodated McNeese students. Many campuses sent supplies to McNeese to help them through the darkest hours.

But Burckel said his team is firmly in charge of what’s happening on campus, making themselves and their contracted help — not Baton Rouge — accountable for work making McNeese whole again. Restoring McNeese may cost as much as $150 million.

“We want to lead the recovery,” he said of rebuilding the area. “Psychologically, if McNeese is back, it will give the community a sense that things will be back to normal.

“We didn’t want parents to say they had to send kids somewhere else. We are going to be the first group out of box, fully recovered and here.”