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Take a chance on the Coast again

In the early 1980s, William Carey College was dealt a blow. A hurricane came rolling out of the Gulf and severely impacted the school’s Gulfport campus, located on Beach Boulevard.

Ironically, the administration building, one of the many picturesque, historical structures that line U.S. 90, was relatively unharmed, as were the other older structures on campus. But the campus’ newest facilities, two residence halls that were still incomplete when the storm hit, were devastated. One was rubble, and the other was leaning noticeably.

It was a kick in the gut for the private college based in Hattiesburg. At that time, Carey on the Coast was the area’s only four-year institution of higher learning, but enrollment simply never met expectations. The administration decided that one thing that might remedy that would be on-campus dormitories.

In essence, Carey on the Coast was building “spec dorms,” with the philosophy of “Build it, and they will come.” Now, that strategy literally lay in ruins. I was part of the team sent down from Hattiesburg to assess the damage, and I’ll never forget the pain on the president’s face when we arrived back in Hattiesburg and gave him the bad news.

While the administration was saddened, it was undaunted. Not only did the college rebuild the two damaged dorms, it built two more that were not originally planned before the hurricane. Instead of running scared, Carey decided to double its risk. It was taking a chance on the Coast and its citizens.

That gamble paid off. Carey would put a renewed focus on the Gulfport campus in the latter 1980s. New programs started. Recruiting efforts were strengthened. Enrollment at Carey on the Coast doubled, then tripled. By the early 1990s, the college had a waiting list for its on-campus housing. I transferred to Carey on the Coast in the late 1980s, and the school’s success is still one of the most rewarding experiences I have had in my professional career. Carey had put faith in the Coast and its people, envisioned a bright tomorrow, and was rewarded for it.

Then, there was Katrina.

Just another challenge

After I got through mourning for the people of the Coast following Hurricane Katrina, my thoughts turned to the places I once haunted, especially Carey on the Coast. I saw the devastation on television, including areas near the campus where nothing was left of structures except the slab upon which they had stood. I assumed Carey on the Coast had suffered that fate, and since I couldn’t raise anyone on the Hattiesburg campus, also heavily impacted by Katrina, my fears grew.

Then, I found online aerial views taken by NOAA of Katrina’s destruction. I swallowed hard, clicked, and actually closed my eyes as the picture downloaded. What I saw stunned me.

Except for a small wood-framed house that during my time at Carey on the Coast served primarily as a storage building, every structure, including the dormitories, stand. Every last one of them. Looking for anything positive in the wake of all the terrible news, my spirits were lifted.

That’s not to say the campus escaped impact. The photograph reveals the damage to Carey on the Coast is widespread and severe.

It appears part of the administration building has simply crumbled away. A section of the facility that served as the student union/bookstore in my day has broken away from the rest of the structure. All the other academic buildings are severely impacted, and the dorms, particularly the one nearest the beach, are in similar shape.

At least, however, there’s something there, something from which to rebuild. I don’t know what Carey’s future plans are for the Gulfport campus, but if it does decide to rebuild, I’m sure it will be beautiful and am convinced that the students will return.

The challenges to William Carey are steep. Not only is its Gulfport campus devastated and its main campus in Hattiesburg heavily impacted, it operates a School of Nursing in New Orleans. One doesn’t need aerial views of that now-abandoned city to know that campus has been dealt a crushing blow, as well.

Tomorrow is coming

Carey’s position reflects the situation of the entire Mississippi Gulf Coast. The area has been forever altered. Familiar and cherished landmarks are obliterated. The infrastructure is in shambles. The devastation is so complete that one is left wondering where to begin.
But begin it will; in fact, it already has. There is something from which to rebuild, and I’m not talking about buildings. It’s the people.

Unfortunately, we have lost hundreds of our neighbors to Katrina. But thousands more are alive and well. These are by and large amazing people who can climb out of the wreckage, survey the damage, then set about putting it all back together again.

Sun shining through rubble is sunshine nonetheless. Tomorrow will come, and the folks of the Gulf Coast look forward to it as only they can.

The quality of life that the Coast held in spades has been terribly diminished, but not life itself. It’s going to take a lot of faith and hard work to restore the area, but we should take a chance on the Coast and its people. The risk is well worth the return.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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