Rising from the rubble: What we’ve learned one year after Hurricane Laura

SOWELA Technical Community College is making progress on repairs to its Arts and Humanities Building, which was among its facilities damaged last year during Hurricane Laura. (Photos: SOWELA)

On August 27, 2020, just 10 days after the start of SOWELA Technical Community College’s fall semester and amid the second serious Covid wave, Hurricane Laura nearly wiped out the Lake Charles area and caused over $40 million in damages to all 13 of SOWELA’s main campus buildings. Category 4 Laura was the worst storm to hit the Louisiana coast in more than 150 years.

The hurricane brought 150 mph winds and a storm surge up to 15 feet. Hundreds of thousands of people were forced to evacuate, and thousands of families were displaced.

As I walked the campus shortly after the storm, it looked like a war zone. Debris was everywhere. The roof of an entire building was gone. The college in recent years had undergone multiple facility expansions through an extensive campus revitalization plan and experienced record enrollment growth to nearly 4,000 students, and in mere hours, all of that progress was literally blown away.

Students, faculty and staff alike had to first assess basic needs like housing, food and utilities. SOWELA’s student population is about 66% low- to moderate-income, meaning many were likely renting or did not have homeowner’s insurance. We did not know how many would be able to return to the area once conditions were livable.

Forging forward

Academic life paused, but as an administration, we did not want to lose the semester. We needed to quickly get students back into the classroom so they could stay on track with their expected graduation dates and hopes for a better-paying job. To do this, the approach was twofold: provide students with resources to return to classes as fast as possible and begin rebuilding immediately.

To restart classes, the college worked to address barriers. SOWELA provided more than 1,000 mobile hotspots, as well as laptops, to those who needed them. Through $200,000 in grants funded by industry partners, students, faculty and staff were given cash to help with basic needs. Sister institutions hosted life-saving food and clothing drives.

A student in SOWELA’s machine tool technology program.

Individuals like Shantell McDaniel, a single mom of two and a process technology student, benefited from this additional support. Shantell’s home in Cameron Parish just south of Lake Charles was totaled. She and her children moved in with family until she could secure a trailer to live in. She refused to let this natural disaster disrupt her plans. Shantell is continuing her studies and is expected graduate in May 2022.

Another key component was implementing the fastest rebuild schedule to date with the state of Louisiana thanks to the support of Gov. John Bel Edwards. Work almost immediately began on all 13 buildings, ranging from moderate roof damage to total loss. Now, one year later, 10 of our buildings are back online with nearly all buildings to be repaired by the end of October.

Creating options during Covid

Despite all the damage and trauma from Hurricane Laura, little did we know then that we were bracing for an even greater test — the second and most deadly wave of the Covid pandemic.

In spring 2020, like other college campuses across the U.S., SOWELA moved to a 100% online instruction model as the pandemic shutdown began. For an educational institution that offers technical degrees, such as welding, vehicle maintenance and repair technology, aviation maintenance technology and others that require hands-on learning in a lab, this was a major challenge.

Some classes paused until it was safe to meet in person again while others were able to make the shift temporarily to the online format. Rather than allow the situation to derail academics, I saw instructors turn difficulty into opportunity.

In the surgical technology program, for example, Program Coordinator Amy Broussard contacted a virtual reality technology company that normally services health systems to determine what tools she could use in her newly online clinicals. As a result, surgical technology students were able to continue practicing their skills at home in what is an incredibly meticulous field.

The program continues to use this technology today and has expanded to offer laparoscopic virtual reality technology. This cohort graduated in May and achieved a 100% pass rate on the Certified Surgical Technologist Exam.

Services were also adapted to better meet the needs of students in the remote academic learning environment. Online tutors, academic advisors, counselors and more offered support during a time when mental health was strained.

It’s about community

In closing, what did we learn?

As SOWELA’s chancellor, it is my philosophy that we not only serve students in the classroom, but students in the school of life. SOWELA has been educating students in Southwest Louisiana for 83 years and we know that learning doesn’t stop once the diploma is in hand. Life for Southwest Louisiana residents has given us some of the greatest opportunities to learn over the course of these last few months.

Facilities can blow away, pandemics can force us to adapt in major ways, but the spirit of community doesn’t waiver. The resiliency of our students, faculty and staff makes me proud to be able to say we are SOWELA Technical Community College. We have lived up to our name and mission, and our future is brighter than ever even as we reach the peak of another hurricane season.

About the Author

Neil Aspinwall
is chancellor of SOWELA Technical Community College in Lake Charles, Louisiana.