Two summers ago, Collette Creppell was steering an expansive design and construction program at Tulane University, which included an ambitious slate of capital projects, fundraising campaigns, and plans for satellite campuses. “We were planning to take over a high-rise in downtown for our health sciences center and had begun to realize a 10-year housing plan,” she remembers.

That, of course, was before the nightmare of Hurricane Katrina. What followed after Aug. 29, 2005, is a testament to the resourcefulness and flexibility of a university community that could easily have been paralyzed by natural disaster. Decisive action was instead the course, and many of the key responses relied on the ability of Creppell and her colleagues to deliver under extraordinary duress.

Long-established institutional plans were shelved as the staff moved into recovery mode. Work on a $42 million student center, a law school expansion, and a baseball stadium was put on hold. Instead, Creppell focused on reclaiming what the university already owned: “Think of it as a gut renovation of the first floor of two-thirds of the campus, because that much of the campus was under water.”

Mitigation crews numbering up to 400 workers arrived in October to clean up. To get housing back on line, Tulane chartered a cruise ship with 1,000 beds and built modular housing—the so-called “Mod Quad”—on a campus parking lot. In December 2005, Tulane president Scott Cowen announced a plan to reorganize the university, placing greater emphasis on undergraduate education. “We have gone into a very different scenario,” says Creppell, who was formerly the director of city planning for New Orleans. “It's not about capital projects, but about recovery, mitigation, and a renewal plan that is focused on different outcomes. We have redefined ourselves as a result of Katrina.”

Reshaping Tulane into seven new entities, ranging from the Newcomb-Tulane Undergraduate College to a new Center for Public Service, placed a sudden burden on Creppell's office. Working with Christner, a St. Louis–based consulting firm, Creppell seized the president's mandate and launched a comprehensive planning process for how to rebuild and reassign space–all compressed into six months.

Now, almost two years later, the pace is beginning to normalize. Although not everything is back up to speed (the library, for instance, still runs on temporary HVAC), there are many success stories. The Wall Residential College, a dormitory designed by Wayne Troyer/Lloyd Bray that opened two days before Katrina hit, was refurbished in time for students to move in by January 2006. And the much-anticipated Lavin-Bernick Center for University Life, designed by Vincent James Associates Architects, opened in March.

Tulane's renewal plan also lowered the cap on the student population to 11,000 from a high of 13,000. Says Creppell: “There's a sense of wanting to get it to be the right size. Now we have more of an opportunity to create a pedestrian-oriented central campus.”