On a grim day last September, a ten-car convoy of researchers drove into the putrid waters of downtown New Orleans. Scientists fanned out across the Tulane University health-sciences campus, salvaging computers and research samples from buildings flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Today, the university campus buzzes with activity of a different sort. Undergraduate classes resumed in January, with 93% of students returning for the spring semester. Research experiments are again under way. And preliminary numbers suggest that Tulane earned $133 million in sponsored research last year — a mere 3% drop from the previous year.

Tulane has emerged relatively unscathed compared with other institutions in New Orleans (see 'Around New Orleans'). Yet even at Tulane, Katrina has left a permanent mark in the form of low morale, lost equipment and laid-off faculty members.

As Hurricane Katrina headed for New Orleans, few were anticipating the flood it left in its wake. Credit: NOAA

On 29 August 2005, Katrina separated Tulane's two campuses by more than just geography. Floodwaters barely reached the stately buildings of the university's historic uptown campus for undergraduates. Science departments there were up and running after a few rough months of limited electricity and minor repairs. “On the undergraduate campus, you'd be hard pressed to find any evidence that there was a storm,” says Robert Garry of the department of microbiology and immunology. “But other parts...well, it's not so good.”

These other parts of Tulane are located downtown, nearly 5 kilometres away, on the health-sciences campus. There, the waters rose to 2 to 3 metres, flooding electricity supplies and maintenance rooms on the lower floors. Some research labs began operating again as early as November, but others didn't reopen until January (see 'Winds of change: three stories from Tulane's faculty'). Even then conditions were difficult: in the J. Bennett Johnston Health and Environmental Research Building, the first health-sciences building to reopen, some researchers were left warming their hands over Bunsen burners when temperature controls failed last winter.

Back in August last year, electricity losses also doomed many experiments. It is safe to say that no one working in the biomedical sciences at Tulane will ever again take refrigeration for granted. Power failures and warm temperatures destroyed stem-cell lines, tissue cultures and antibodies, some of which were the products of years of specialized work. Only some samples were saved through emergency rescue efforts.

“We lost in excess of $100 million of biological assets,” says John Clements, dean of research at the medical school. “But we also saved $100 million of biological assets.” Researchers credit the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation with providing resources for recouping their losses, and Tulane itself has dedicated $20 million to research grants to be awarded over the next two years.

More than a week after the flooding began, Tulane University's athletics track was still under water. Credit: D. PHILLIP/EMPICS/AP

Others lost far more — their jobs. The university, having sustained property damage of $160 million, sacked 180 medical-school faculty members on 8 December. Another 50 faculty members were laid off uptown, and the departments of mechanical engineering, civil engineering and computer science were eliminated altogether. Even today, the firings are perhaps the sorest spot for Tulane faculty members, with many questioning the decisions.

Prescott Deininger, associate director of Tulane's cancer centre, says that the disaster demanded drastic action. He adds that he was consulted before the lay-offs were finalized, and he feels that his recommendations were taken into consideration before final decisions were made by the president's office and approved by the university's board of administrators.

Tyler Curiel, chief of haematology and medical oncology, agrees that the situation was dire but says that the process of deciding which jobs to cut was not transparent enough. Although he was consulted early in the lay-off discussions, he says that he was not involved in any final decisions, nor was he ever clearly told how decisions were to be made. Meanwhile, he was fielding frantic phone calls from faculty members asking if they were going to be 'let go'.

If you're on a ship and the ship is sinking, the captain doesn't want to poll the deckhands to figure out what to do.

“It was a very frustrating time for all of us,” says Curiel, who is leaving Tulane this month for the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. “It just wasn't handled well from a human standpoint.”

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has been investigating the firing decisions at Tulane. Jordan Kurland, the association's associate general-secretary, says that Tulane mostly abided by the AAUP's recommended standards, which allow tenure to be cancelled in cases of extreme financial need. But more could have been done, he suggests. “Tulane authorities have provided general information as to the financial health of Tulane,” says Kurland. “But they have not, despite urgings to do so, taken the next step and explained why they fired these particular people.”

Clements says that critics don't understand the magnitude of the crisis. “If you're on a ship and the ship is sinking, the captain doesn't want to poll the deckhands to figure out what to do,” he says. He also notes that Tulane has offered its laid-off clinical faculty members a one-year severance package — which amounts to a better deal than those provided by other institutions in New Orleans.

Including lay-offs and voluntary resignations, Tulane University has lost 17% of its full-time faculty members in the past year. Many of the remaining faculty members have been approached by other universities.

Administrators hope that the faculty exodus is now over and that those who have stayed this long are committed to staying. But Curiel predicts that there may be another wave of resignations on the horizon. Pharmacologist Bruce Bunnell says he couldn't help but entertain the thought of leaving. “Tulane's been fantastic to me, but science is one of these things where you make your own way,” he says.