NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Each day the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary campus looks more like a school and less like a construction site.
Students and student families began moving back to campus in early June with the reopening of The Manor and Courtyard Apartments. The sounds of children playing have replaced the sounds of hammers and heavy machinery. After months of work, the campus is clean, safe and green -– an oasis in a devastated city.
“After the heartache of watching our entire seminary family move away in October, it is a joy beyond compare to see student families moving back to the campus,” NOBTS President Chuck Kelley said. “I never knew how precious the sight of children climbing all over the playground equipment would be.
“That day is finally here,” he reflected. “The family is coming home.”
Among the first students to return was Billy Puckett. He and his wife Katy moved into Texas Manor apartments along with their two young sons, William and Jack, on June 6.
Like many student families, the Pucketts lost almost everything when their States apartment flooded. Their building was near the back of campus and received some of the deepest water.
When Puckett returned to retrieve personal items from the apartment, he was searching for one important item -– his wife’s wedding ring -– left behind in the quick evacuation. He rescued the ring, a compact disc containing family photos and a few other items. Despite losing so much on campus following the storm, the Pucketts are excited to be back on campus.
Puckett, who works for Habitat for Humanity in the flood zone, calls the NOBTS campus a place to recharge and rest each day after long hours out in the devastated areas of New Orleans.
Seminary contractor Mike Moskau said the restoration process is approximately 80 percent complete. Additional housing units will open in the coming weeks and by the start of classes in August he expects most of the work on student and faculty housing to be complete.
Kelley is pleased with the progress. “From the lush green grass to homes and apartments that look and smell new, the restoration project has gone very well,” he said. “This unprecedented combination of professional workers and Southern Baptist volunteer labor has been an unfolding miracle.
“When things are finished, it will be hard to tell there was a thunderstorm, much less the worst disaster in our nation’s history,” Kelley said.
Faculty homes are scheduled to reopen to professors and their families in July. The Oaks, a new two-bedroom student apartment complex, also will open in July. School officials anticipated an earlier opening for these units, but building material shortages slowed the work.
The men’s and women’s dorms will be among the last housing units to open. Kelley said the units will not be ready until August because the administration wanted to improve the buildings rather than merely restore them. The improvements to the dorms include updates to the electrical wiring as well as updates to the heating and air conditioning system.
The seminary’s renewal and the returning campus residents are having an impact on the surrounding area.
City councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, who represents district “D” encompassing NOBTS and the surrounding Gentilly neighborhood, said the seminary is a source of hope and encouragement.
“I was here during Katrina, I know what your seminary looked like because I came back here on a boat,” Hedge-Morrell said during a recent campus visit. “You have done an outstanding job. You are a beacon for this whole community.”
For those questioning the viability of the city, Hedge-Morrell recommends a visit to NOBTS.
“When they [seminary neighbors] see what you have been able to do … they are going to know their community is coming back,” she said. “Forget all the naysayers out there because we know that when God puts His hand on something, it is going to happen.”