Hardtner Hall

Disaster response work crews are parked in front of McNeese State University’s Hardtner Hall. 

McNeese State University President Daryl Burckel said $77 million worth of work to repair damages caused by Hurricanes Laura and Delta is set to begin Nov. 1, with classes planned to resume on campus by the spring semester next year. Campus will reopen Jan. 4 for spring semester business, with spring classes starting Jan. 19.
During a press conference Thursday, Burckel spoke of the need to get McNeese repaired quickly, considering that most of the university’s operating budget is based on student tuition.
 Burckel said he and McNeese staff approached Gov. John Bel Edwards immediately after Hurricane Laura to discuss recovery efforts. Burckel also testified in front of the state Legislature in September about the need for students to return to campus in the spring semester.
“We can’t wait to come back in the fall and just have a time in the spring where we just try to recover,” he said.
In order for the recovery work to move along more efficiently, Burckel said the university was split into seven zones, including four academic zones, two athletic zones and the farm.
“We knew that the rebuild process woul be too big for one contractor, and we wanted all of campus coming up at one time,” he said.
Burckel said the McNeese Facilities and Planning Office acted quickly in assessing damage from the hurricanes and securing bids for the improvements. Over nine days, nearly 140 buildings and structures were assessed for damages, according to FEMA regulations, he said. Seven architectural and engineering groups worked to get bid documents ready for each zone.
“This is not their pattern; this is not how they do things,” Burckel said of the office. “But they recognized that they couldn’t keep operating the same way and had to do things differently.”
While buildings were being assessed for damage by Hurricane Laura, Hurricane Delta made landfall in Southwest Louisiana Oct. 9. The scope of Delta-related damages may increase the overall amount to $96 million, Burckel said. 
“The wind tore off temporary roofs, and more than 15 inches of rain poured into the buildings,” he said. “Delta brought the rain that Laura didn’t.”
A website, comehomecowboys.com, is being launched to keep the public updated of recovery efforts throughout the campus. The website will allow for insight into the cost of repairing each building and the state of construction.
Burckel said the hurricanes haven’t caused much of a drop in student enrollment. He said enrollment was slightly up at the start of the fall semester. Student housing is a top priority to get reopened by the spring, Burckel said. 
“Our students have been extraordinarily resilient through all of this,” he said.
Burckel said staff juggled repairing their homes, while focusing on helping students. He said McNeese remains dedicated to improving the lives of its students.
“We’re seeing our communities become better because of the students that come through our university,” he said.
James Henderson, University of Louisiana System president, said Laura and Delta damaged six of the system’s nine institutions.
Henderson said Burckel texted him just after 3 a.m. Aug. 27, telling him that Hurricane Laura’s eyewall was passing over Lake Charles. He said Burckel’s resolve during and after the storm’s landfall was inspiring.
“I think it’s reflective of the resolve and the resilience of the people from the entire Southwest Louisiana region,” he said. “I can promise you, no one who has seen the images in this city will forget the damage (or) the spirit.”
Kim Hunter Reed, Louisiana Commissioner of Higher Education, said McNeese is critical to the recovery of Southwest Louisiana.
“We’re going to make sure the Cowboys come back home stronger than ever,” she said. “I’m optimistic that McNeese will prosper, and we are here to make sure that will happen.”
State Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Sulphur, said the Southwest Louisiana delegation made sure during the recent special session that the region’s hurricane recovery needs would be met. He said the quick pace of awarding $77 million in recovery work is “absolutely unheard of in state government” and private business.
Johns said he and Sen. Mark Abraham, R-Lake Charles, found out mid-way through the special session that the region was $20 million short. He said a solution came about by moving money from a capital outlay savings fund to those recovery projects..
Johns said the delegation wants to ensure students continue to qualify for TOPS scholarships. 
Abraham said legislators are “laser focused” on getting Louisiana back from its education woes to help K-12 schools, as well as two- and four-year colleges.
“The only way you lift Louisiana up is education,” he said. “I can’t think of a better way to send that message of hope and to make a statement that McNeese is back, than the fast track we’re doing right now.”

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