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At Tulane University Campus Ministry Recovery Underway

By Jonathan Goldstein

 . The Wesley Foundation at Tulane: Colleagues and volunteers helped Max Zehner D'03 with the clean-up after flooding from Hurricane Katrina.

Max Zehner, campus minister and director of the Wesley Foundation at Tulane University in New Orleans, expected Hurricane Katrina to come and go like so many storms before it.

Not that Tulane, or Zehner D ’03, took any chances. Incoming freshmen, who arrived on Aug. 27, were instructed to drop off their possessions in dorms and immediately leave town. Zehner, also pastor of nearby Jefferson United Methodist Church, waited out the storm with friends in Atlanta. His drive to Atlanta, normally about eight hours, took twice that long as traffic choked the roads leading away from the Gulf Coast.

Still, Zehner thought the campus, and the city, would take a few lumps and quickly recover.

In the days after Katrina, though, Zehner realized that New Orleans had been transformed by wind, rain and the unstoppable flow of murky floodwater. Soon Tulane canceled the fall semester, and the students who make up Zehner’s campus ministry dispersed to schools in other states. The extent of the damage along the Gulf Coast started to become clear through 24-hour media coverage.

“It was devastation like I’ve never seen,” said Zehner, who grew up in the New Orleans area and is no stranger to hurricanes. “The water just completely wiped out so many buildings. It was surreal and humbling.”

Tulane itself was spared the worst of the damage. Portions of campus were covered by more than six feet of water, but the main academic quad suffered relatively little flooding. Work crews quickly came in to begin repairs.

Zehner himself, like many of his friends and neighbors, dropped his routine and started working to rebuild what had been soaked, battered or scattered by the storm.

 . Sheetrock removal inside the campus ministry building, where flooding from the storm was at least six inches deep.

About six inches of water had seeped into the campus ministry building, so Zehner, with help from colleagues and volunteers, pulled up carpets, ripped out damaged sheet rock and hauled damaged materials outside for removal.

He was thankful that his church, both the congregation and the building, made it through Katrina in good condition. So did his apartment.

For the fall, though, his campus ministry was gone.

Zehner worked doggedly to keep in touch with his students from the Wesley Foundation—no small task considering the group includes about four dozen students from 27 states. It was even more difficult in the weeks immediately after the hurricane when telephone lines, Tulane’s computer network and cell phone services all were disrupted.

Eventually, Zehner learned that the students themselves had taken the lead in reestablishing communications. They created a Web page allowing them to check in with one another and report what they were doing. Most of the students found temporary accommodations at other schools so they wouldn’t lose an entire semester. Among their temporary homes: the University of Minnesota, Oklahoma University, the University of Tennessee, the University of Texas, the University of Virginia, and American University in Washington, D.C. One student came to Duke.

Zehner, who in time was able to catch up with many students by phone, said he expected nearly everyone to return for the spring semester in mid-January. Tulane as a whole, which enrolled about 13,000 students before the storm, anticipated that close to 90 percent of its students would come back.

“ ‘January’ was our rallying cry,” Zehner said. “We were really ready for them to be back.” Tulane University now estimates a student return rate of anywhere between 80-90 percent.

 . Hurricane recovery has become an integral part of Zehner's campus ministry. Students are telling stories of their experiences, sharing ideas about where they now see God's love, and working to help recovery efforts.

Hurricane recovery has become an integral part of campus ministry. Students are telling stories of their experiences, sharing ideas about where they now see God’s love, and working to help communities rebuild.

“Our lives have been forever changed,” he said. “This is going to be with us for a long time.”

Zehner has involved the students in the work of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), which has set up five relief stations in the Louisiana Conference. The stations will be involved in counseling, building repairs and other aspects of recovery.

During the first three Sundays of the semester, the Wesley Foundation experienced record crowds. Said Zehner: “As I predicted earlier, there has also been a strong sense of mission and service as we have begun what will be ongoing ‘Mission Service Saturdays.’ In other words, we will send out work teams from our campus ministry every Saturday … probably for the next few years.”   

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