By PETER FINNEY JR.,CNS | Published December 15, 2005
Like thousands of other New Orleanians, Norman Francis, the president of Xavier University, lost his house in Hurricane Katrina. He nearly lost the university he has led since 1968 and built into a national powerhouse.
And now the man who arguably has done more than others over the last 40 years to change the face of New Orleans does not want to lose his city.
That’s why Francis, despite his personal and professional obligations, did not hesitate when Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco asked him in September to be chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, a panel charged with developing and implementing a recovery plan for the state.
“I’d be less than honest if I didn’t say it was difficult and challenging, but I guess most of us pick up adrenaline when we meet problems and the things that have to be done,” Francis told the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the New Orleans Archdiocese.
Every building at Xavier University sustained extensive flooding, but the biggest blow came to the central power plant, which housed the electrical, heating and cooling systems. Power was not restored until late November, and the initial cleanup work on campus had to be done with the aid of generators.
The restoration pace has quickened as the school gears up for its Jan. 17 reopening with more than 2,800 students, 800 more than the university had originally predicted.
The challenge is to find enough housing for students and faculty members. Currently, there are 50 trailers on campus to house construction workers. A parking lot could accommodate another 50 trailers for faculty members, but the university needs to find space for about 100 more.
Students will be able to use some parts of dormitories, but the demand for space has increased because local students who used to commute to school now may need a room on campus.
Francis said he was keenly aware of the growing sense of frustration among Louisiana residents that the federal government may not be committed fully to providing stronger levees and a coastal restoration plan to encourage individuals and businesses to return and invest in the area.
But he is banking on the promise of federal support made by President George W. Bush in his speech in front of St. Louis Cathedral in September. “He said it quite eloquently and demonstratively that he will support the efforts to rebuild New Orleans and the coastline, and I think the muscle and the support has to follow,” Francis said.
The Louisiana Recovery Authority is relying on local commissions, such as Mayor Ray Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission, to develop local recovery plans. Francis said the two panels are not working at cross-purposes and have developed strong lines of communication with each other.
Francis said managing the post-Katrina crisis was particularly difficult because so many things “have to happen at the same time,” noting that in order for people to come back they have to have health care, housing and an education system for their children.
“The question is how can we collectively focus on this and plan well and not take ages to do it,” he said. “All of us are hearing the cries of pain and frustration. I’m part of the citizenry having to find another place to live. Little by little things are happening.”
He said he believes the American public has “a great heart and sensitivity,” but he also does not think the public has gotten the message “that if anything happens to Louisiana, the country is at risk,” pointing out that protection of Louisiana’s port, oil and gas industry and the seafood industry is vital to national security.
“It’s not just our (restaurant) food and music,” he said. “The country is dependent on Louisiana and New Orleans, and hopefully that message will get out. We do worry that the further away we get from this disaster, the more likely it is that concern would wane. That would not be in the best interest of the country.”
Francis remained optimistic despite slow progress on getting a federal commitment to protect Louisiana from Category 5 hurricanes. He said making the coastline safe is a top priority, and “that safety starts with an effective levee system and protection of the coastal regions.”
He said he has often turned to his Catholic faith to get through the aftermath of Katrina and deal with the uncertainty of the future. He praised his Xavier staff members for marshaling their efforts for the university while he has been busy also attending to state matters.
“I don’t think we could have done this without the faith and the courage that comes from our religious background,” Francis said. “I mean that sincerely. I’m amazed at the dedication of my staff, some of whom have lost family members. That’s the faith that has been driving us at Xavier for so many years.”