Pandemic, Hurricane, Hurricane, Winter Storm, And Flood

Nothing could have prepared Dr. Burckel for the events that happened over a 14-month roller coaster of unprecedented events that began in March 2020. These would be the toughest months in the history of McNeese.

News of the coronavirus (COVID-19) began circulating in February 2020. It was officially declared a global pandemic in early March and mass business closures began throughout the United States.

On Friday, March 13, 2020, Gov. John Bel Edwards declared all elementary, middle and high schools, and universities to be closed for several weeks to stop the spread of the coronavirus. McNeese switched to online learning on Wednesday, March 18, just five days after the state’s announcement. Classroom instruction would continue in this format for the remainder of the semester.

All annual student events, the Banners Series, and athletic events were canceled. Academic Signing Day was held virtually and The Pride of McNeese Band accepted recorded auditions from students.

Dr. Burckel and the leadership team worked to adjust to daily changes in mandates and requirements while implementing work arounds for students and faculty isolated at home in areas with spotty Internet connectivity. WIFI was boosted near campus parking lots and the student parking garage for students to study and take exams in their cars.

Faculty did a heroic effort to maintain communication with students and student services staff offered tele-counseling and tele-health appointments to students.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions on large gatherings, a virtual commencement ceremony was held in the Quad. The ceremony included remarks from Dr, Burckel, Dr. Mitchell Adrian, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs and Enrollment Management, and college deans. It was broadcast on the McNeese YouTube channel. Degrees were conferred on 759 graduates.

“The Spring 2020 graduates may be our most resilient and best prepared alumni to handle future adversity,” Dr. Burckel said. “They encountered the challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic that everyone faced in addition to assuming personal accountability to complete their academic requirements in a completely different format.”

State and federal mandates concerning COVID-19 continued to evolve during late spring and summer. McNeese implemented a number of measures to address social distancing and mask requirements including modifying the configuration of classrooms and labs, adjusting class schedules, offering alternative instructional delivery formats, implementing stringent building cleanings, installing hundreds of hand sanitizing stations, and informational signage. Dr. Burckel maintained constant communication about the ways the university was preparing to reopen and the most current mandates with students, faculty, and staff through memos, social media, and videos.

On August 17, 2020, McNeese welcomed students back to modified classes and activities. Enrollment was on track to exceed fall 2019 by 150 students and everyone was looking forward to COVID-19 restrictions being lifted during the fall semester.

Ten days later, on Aug. 27, Hurricane Laura, a strong Category 4 storm, slammed into Southwest Louisiana with 150 mph winds that devastated McNeese and Lake Charles.

Dr. Burckel joined the limited staff and McNeese police officers required to remain on campus during hurricanes and rode out the storm that night in Farrar Hall. When the crew emerged from the building at daybreak, just after the storm had passed, he said no sound was made as they stood in awe of the destruction the storm left behind.

Nearly every building on campus was damaged. Tons of debris covered the grounds. The beautiful oak trees all over campus were wind scorched and missing large sections of limbs. Water stood in Cowboy Stadium and the newly opened Health and Human Performance Complex sustained $21 million in damages and water was inches deep on the floor of the new basketball arena. Damage just to the academic buildings exceeded $77 million.

Within hours, Dr. Burckel was reaching out to state officials, colleagues, and friends to organize building damage assessments and remediation work. National Guard personnel arrived with equipment to begin clearing debris and a timeline for resuming classes and distributing financial aid reimbursements was coming together.

Dr. Burckel issued a message to students, faculty, and staff expressing his concern for them and their families, encouraging them to support each other and reassuring them that McNeese would reopen.

Contractors began remediation work in campus buildings hours after the storm passed. Within days, temporary roofs covered all, or portions of nearly 140 buildings and engineering and architectural teams were completing damage assessments on 2 million square feet of building space.

Dr. Burckel developed an aggressive and unique recovery plan. He quickly gained the support of Gov. John Bel Edwards, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, the Office of Facility Planning and Control, and the Southwest Louisiana Legislative Delegation. The McNeese campus was divided into seven quadrants including four academic, two athletic, and the farm. Quadrants containing academic buildings and residence halls were given the highest priority.

The plan called for having multiple teams of architects, engineers, and contractors working simultaneously. This model had never been used before on a state project. Within 60 days, damages were assessed, engineering teams were on board, and bids were awarded to contractors for the four priority quadrants.

The semester was restarted on September 18 with online classes. Most of the faculty and staff were displaced and working remotely. Dr. Burckel, members of his leadership team, university police officers, information technology staff, and plant and facility operations staff were working out of two campus buildings that sustained the least damage.

“We are prioritizing our instructional buildings and residence halls,” Dr. Burckel said in a message to students. “So we can get back to the academic excellence and student success that McNeese delivers.”

Students were offered residence hall space at other University of Louisiana System campuses and use of resources including libraries, labs, and fitness facilities. McNeese Student Health and Counseling staff provided students with tele-health appointments. Drive up WIFI was available in the student parking garage and McNeese provided hundreds of mobile hot spots to students without home internet access.

By the end of September, more essential staff in accounting, accounts payable, human resources, payroll, and enrollment management returned to work on campus in the half dozen buildings that were habitable. Contractors were scheduled to start work on the four priority quadrants on November 1.

On October 9, just six weeks after Hurricane Laura, Hurricane Delta made landfall on a track just a few miles east of Laura’s path and tore through Lake Charles and the McNeese campus. The strong Category 2 storm brought winds of over 100 miles per hour that ripped temporary roofs off and allowed rain to pour into campus buildings.

Buildings sustained additional water damage and mold spread into areas previously spared. Damages, losses and remediation work on the McNeese campus and farm from the two hurricanes exceeded $230 million.

Dr. Burckel and his team remained focused and committed to the plan to have the campus open for the spring semester.

In December, 603 students celebrated their graduation during six ceremonies, one for each college, in the Burton Coliseum. The multiple ceremonies were held due to continued state COVID-19 social distancing regulations.

McNeese resumed normal operations on January 2, 2021, with five academic buildings, Frazar Memorial Library, and most of the residence halls and dining facilities open—a record-setting six weeks after repairs and restoration began. COVID-19 restrictions were relaxed, and in-person classes resumed. Due to damage to the H&HP Arena, men’s and women’s basketball returned to Burton Coliseum.

In February, a winter storm with record breaking low temperatures and ice hit Southwest Louisiana. Damage to the city of Lake Charles water plant caused low water pressure and McNeese was closed for several days. The freezing conditions also caused pipes to burst and minor flooding in some buildings.

In May 2021, a thousand-year flood caused extensive flooding throughout the city and on campus. The flooding caused damage several buildings including the Alumni Center, Recreation Complex, and Kaufman Hall and forced the temporary closure of Burton Residence Hall.

The 2020-2021 academic year was the most difficult in the University’s 81 years of existence. Over the course of nine months, Southwest Louisiana faced four federally declared natural disasters in addition to the battle against the COVID global pandemic. McNeese students, faculty, and staff at McNeese were resilient and Cowboy strong through it all.

Dr. Jim Henderson, former president and CEO of the University of Louisiana System, said, “Much of Daryl’s tenure as president was spent in the eye of the storm, surrounded by challenges whether it be the global pandemic, hurricanes, or even a named winter storm. Throughout the trials, he proved able to lead through the toughest of circumstances with resilience and humility. His unwavering optimism and perseverance set McNeese on a pathway to recovery that will serve them for years to come.”