Image: LSU students
Mark Saltz  /  AP
Louisiana State University medical students, seen leaving the ferry they are living on temporarily, are taking classes in movie theaters following Katrina.
updated 10/21/2005 4:57:07 PM ET 2005-10-21T20:57:07

The sun is barely up, but the movie theater parking lot holds dozens of cars.

There’s no early matinee. The cars belong to Hurricane Katrina refugees from New Orleans — nursing students waiting for class to start.

So in Theater 4, nursing management will be followed by “Serenity.” After the Research in Nursing class, “Elizabethtown” is showing in Theater 6. An anatomy exam in 7 precedes “The Gospel.” And in Theater 11, Mothers and Childbearing Families (aka obstetrics) is followed by the Wallace and Gromit movie “The Curse of the Were Rabbit.”

“It’s just like an auditorium-style classroom,” says Jenelle Johnson, 24. “They use PowerPoint. But we can smell popcorn on our way out.”

And there aren’t any flip-up desktops — something that helps explain the big box of free clipboards plopped in front of the theater, along with boxes of freebie pens, pencils, notepads, scrubs and warm socks (the air-conditioning is fierce) donated by businesses and other schools.

Louisiana State University’s nursing school gets to use the theater free as long as everyone clears out by 11 a.m. Other classes are held at more predictable spots around Baton Rouge, though many dental school courses are taught at the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine.

While New Orleans’ universities will not reopen until spring semester, LSU’s medical school cranked up again just a month after Katrina, setting up shop in the state capital. Tulane’s med school opened a week later, in Texas.

“We were amazed at their resilience,” says Joe Keyes, senior vice president of the Association of American Medical Colleges.

New classrooms, new homes
The vast majority of medical students — LSU’s 2,800 and Tulane’s 2,600 — stayed with their schools. The dental school reports only one of its 316 students transferred.

Student living conditions vary. Johnson, who will graduate within months, lives half of the time on a Finnish ferry in the Port of Baton Rouge with students and faculty members. She also lives part-time with an aunt.

The ferry, FinnJet, which had sailed the Baltic Sea for nearly 30 years, was obtained for housing by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Students get to live there free; about 500 have taken the offer.

“The food is great,” Johnson says.

There is the occasional collision between Nordic and Southern tastes — the grits served are too watery and too finely ground, for instance.

“They try to get the grits out of grits,” says Alecia Oden, an occupational therapy student.

Oden owns a house on New Orleans’ Louisiana Avenue. “It’s 50-50,” she says. “Fifty percent wet, 50 percent not. Not including the mold all over the walls.”

Dr. John Rock, chancellor of the LSU Health Sciences Center, says it was crucial to get the medical school back in business quickly. Other schools had begun recruiting top teachers and researchers almost immediately, he says.

“This class — the class of 2005-2006, these men and women — will be an important part of our recovery effort. They will be staffing our hospitals, caring for our patients,” Rock says. “We felt it was just so important we not fall behind a year.”

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