Hurricane Rita turned campus into ‘warzone’

Branches from the live oaks in the Quad immediately after Hurricane Rita. The Lamar campus received approximately $50 milliion of damage.

Branches from the live oaks in the Quad immediately after Hurricane Rita. The Lamar campus received approximately $50 milliion of damage.

Ten years ago this week, students weren’t running to class — they were running away from campus.

On Sept. 23, 2005, winds began to increase in Southeast Texas, and not to the joy of local kite flyers. More than 125 mph winds gusted through the city of Beaumont and surrounding areas, signifying the landfall of Hurricane Rita.

Just a day earlier, thousands of people sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic, trying to escape the ever-looming Rita.

Before the hurricane had reached the coast of Texas, Rita reached top wind speeds of more than 175 mph, making it a Category 5. Although it had weakened to a Category 3 storm when it hit land, it still claimed the lives of 120 people.

The damages to the campus were unimaginable, President Emeritus Jimmy Simmons, who was president of the university at the time, said.

“It was like a warzone afterwards,” he said. “We had probably close to $50 million worth of damage. The roofs were gone — trees gone — windows blown out. The IT system was completely devastated. Every dorm room had water damage.”

Simmons said the wind was so powerful that it blew the writing off street signs.

Initially, only a few policemen stayed to protect the Lamar University campus.

“Chief Dale Fontenot let everyone evacuate who had children,” LUPD Sergeant Carl Hollier said. “So it was a skeleton crew.

“They stayed in the library until the eighth floor was destroyed. Then the fire alarm went off — making a constant noise, until they finally couldn’t take it anymore. They said it was the until they finally couldn’t take it anymore. They said it was the worst thing you could imagine while it was going on.”

Simmons said that the crew of policeman originally thought they would be safe in Gray Library, near the loading docks in the rear of the building.

“Well they heard all of this horrible noise when the windows were blowing out on the eighth floor, and water came running down those steps,” he said. “So, they got arm in arm — it was blinding they said — it was ankle deep water, and they had to walk to the police station. So, they stayed in the police station that night.”

With the campus in a dismembered state, the only thing Simmons and his staff were concerned with, he said, was restoring the campus within enough time to avoid a lost semester.

“In 24 days we were back up,” he said. “It was impressive. I’m telling you, it was a miracle. That’s a story that needs to be told. I don’t know if people realize the dramatic work that was done. 

“We had a terrific staff, and great support from the Texas State University system. I may be prejudiced, but it took McNeese almost a year to get their dorms back up, and we had ours going in 24 days.”

Simmons said the administration had prepared a plan before the storm hit.

“The chancellor told me, ‘Don’t worry about paying for it, get it fixed,’” he said. “We got emergency approval to sign contracts, so we could bring restoration companies in, sheet rockers, painters, carpenters, tree companies, lawn people — and we lined most of that up before the hurricane hit.”

Simmons said if they couldn’t have worked out the issue of no electricity, they would have never finished the restorations in time, so the first thing the crew worked on was getting power back to the school.

“The thing we weren’t prepared for was going that long without electricity,” he said. “The heat was almost unbearable. The electricity was invaluable, you can imagine, because everyone was working in the dark in all these buildings.”

The officers in charge of protecting campus property were feeling the high temperatures as well, Hollier said.

“It was ridiculous,” he said. “We went to Sam’s and bought T-shirts and shorts. Our uniform was a pair of shorts, a T-shirt and a gun belt. That’s how hot it was, and you had no place to wash your clothes.”

The reception center on the eighth floor of Gray Library received heavy damage from Hurricane Rita.

The reception center on the eighth floor of Gray Library received heavy damage from Hurricane Rita.

The eighth floor of Gray Library now. UP Desmond Pickens

The eighth floor of Gray Library now.UP Desmond Pickens

 

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Between the heat and no electricity, campus police had to improvise their living arrangements, even resorting to raiding the Mirabeau café for drinks, Hollier said.

“The first three days, we had two man units, and one man in the passenger seat would be taking a nap, because we didn’t have anywhere to sleep,” he said. “We all scavenged up fryers and barbeque pits. We had Assistant Chief (Obert) Blaisdell, at the time, at the Chancellor’s House and he stayed there and cooked all day. So we went from chicken nuggets to sometimes having good steaks.”

While every other building on campus was without electricity, the one place, possibly in all of Beaumont, that had power was the President’s House,  Simmons said. The team made its headquarters there — they even had Internet.

The Lamar administrators in charge of bringing in cleanup crews were thankful to have scheduled companies in enough time, but they didn’t anticipate that the initial workers themselves couldn’t be trusted, Hollier said. They set up checkpoints to keep students and citizens out of the dorms, but they couldn’t control every worker due to the lack of manpower.

“They had brought in a cleanup crew to do the dorms, and they were stealing things — jewelry, money, shoes,” he said. “So, the detectives had to go to the hotel where they were staying, and they recovered bags and bags of stuff they had taken.”

Although LU was prepared for the worst, there were still little things that could not be controlled, Simmons said.

“We forgot about the iceboxes in the dorms, and the storage facilities in the Biology Building,” he said. “We had to replace every icebox in the dorms. Can you imagine the Biology Building with all those animals and specimens? I think the guy that had to go in there had to have a spacesuit on to clean that out.”

The severely damaged Montagne Center roof after hurricane Rita hit.

The severely damaged Montagne Center roof after hurricane Rita hit.

The same area of the Montagne Center 10 years later, after renovations. UP Desmond Pickens

The same area of the Montagne Center 10 years later, after renovations. UP Desmond Pickens

Simmons and company not only wanted to have everything on campus fixed, but they wanted the students who were coming back to the dorms to feel at home, he said.

“When they came back, there were candy Kisses on their pillows in the dorms,” Simmons said. “Their parents said, ‘We’ve never seen their dorms this clean.’”

With more than two weeks of school lost, Lamar had to reset the rest of the semester schedule in order for students to be able to graduate in time.

“We had to create a whole new schedule of classes from that point on,” Simmons said. “The crediting agencies require X-amount of hours to give you college credit, so we had to fit those hours in and extend the semester a week, and have classes on Saturday.”

Simmons said the possibility of losing a semester would have meant many students not returning to campus. With the quick turnaround, losses were kept to a minimum.

“We did lose a number of our students, but we did have graduation — it was probably one of the most joyous graduations in our history,” he said. “The faculty, the staff and the students were just overjoyed that we could get through that crisis and still hand out diplomas.”

Every building on the Lamar campus suffered some damage after Rita rolled through, but rather wait until spring to restart school, Simmons and his staff worked tirelessly to get the university up in a little over three weeks.

“As I look around at all the things I’ve accomplished during my tenure, I think maybe that 24-day period will always stick out in my mind, as working with some of the greatest people you could ever imagine, to accomplish that 24-day recovery,” he said. “It was an amazing time.”

 

Grant Crawford

UP Sports Editor

Learn more about Lamar University at lamar.edu

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