Aug. 27 was move-in day for students returning to Tulane University in New Orleans, but no one stayed long as Hurricane Katrina stormed through two days later and forced the evacuation of the campus and the rest of the city.
In a matter of hours, students and parents went from unpacking boxes in residence halls to hurriedly evacuating the city. By Aug. 28, every student was gone, with 400 of them bused to Jackson State University in Mississippi.
Two-thirds of the campus, just blocks from the Louisiana Superdome, was flooded with four feet of water, and the school sustained $150 million to $250 million in damage. Over the fall, crews renovated the ground floors and made roof repairs to get the school ready to reopen for spring.
Since many of Tulane's 12,500 students had started taking classes at other universities, how would school officials tell them that classes would be back in session come January? Realizing that most still had e-mail addresses even if their physical addresses had changed, Tulane partnered with e-mail marketing software firm ExactTarget, Indianapolis, and Performance Communications Group, Chicago, which designed an interactive, rich media e-mail for the school, pro bono.
The HTML e-mail went to 20,000 dispersed students and faculty with a video message from university president Scott Cowen welcoming students back. The e-mail also listed events kicking off the semester, including a speech and music from jazz artist Wynton Marsalis, and encouraged recipients to visit a special area of the university's Web site created to “serve as a living journal for those who survived, and as a memorial to the places, family and friends we have lost.” The school said at least four faculty members and university employees died in the hurricane and its aftermath.
Nearly 90 percent of the students have returned, said Mike Strecker, director of media relations at Tulane. Eighty-eight percent had registered for the spring semester by early January, close to the 95 percent average rate of returning students who register during other years.
“The students really surprised us in their eagerness to come back,” Strecker said. “There is a strong community feeling among students. They wanted to be part of rebuilding New Orleans.”
Another surprise from the e-newsletter was that 33 percent of students who viewed it clicked on the “Make a Difference” tab on the site, where they could donate money or time to Katrina-related organizations.
“That was not the primary goal. In this case, the primary goal was to get the message of the president out,” said Scott Madlener, executive vice president of Internet strategies at Performance Communications Group.
The e-mail drew 33,000 page views and 13,000 visits to Tulane's Web site. Most recipients watched Cowen's video message twice.
In the days after Katrina hit, communicating with students and faculty was a “herculean task,” Strecker said. “The administration — about 30 of us — evacuated to Houston, where we set up a temporary office [in a hotel], where cell phones sometimes worked and laptops were in the president's bedroom.”
Officials used Tulane's Web site, including live chats, to let students know the status of the campus. While Tulane's regular e-mail servers weren't running, it established an emergency e-mail system to communicate with students.