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UMaine Today Magazine

Katrina prompts UMaine stay
Back to Moving Mountains-]

Laura Serpa and Terry Pavlis

Geophysicist Laura Serpa and geoscientist Terry Pavlis have spent their professional careers studying how forces of nature have sculpted the Earth over millions of years. In late August, they witnessed what a Category 4 hurricane can do in a matter of hours.

The couple, University of New Orleans faculty members who live in Bay St. Louis, Miss., are among the more than million people displaced by Hurricane Katrina. In late September, Serpa, Pavlis and their two cats came to the University of Maine at the invitation of colleague Peter Koons and the Department of Earth Sciences. They have been living in a residence hall on campus and working in the department's Numerical Modeling Facility until the time is right to go home.

"People ask us, 'Why go back?'" says Serpa. "But I can't think of any place where nature doesn't have some kind of trick. It's a matter of trying to understand nature and withstand it."

For the past two decades, the pair has lived and worked on the Louisiana/Mississippi coast. They commute 50 miles from their home on St. Louis Bay to the University of New Orleans, where they are professors in the Department of Geology and Geophysics.

Serpa's research focuses on the geological evolution of Death Valley. For more than 20 years, she has been collecting data and doing structural mapping in the California national park. For the past decade, she also has spearheaded her department's minority recruitment program. Her latest NSF proposal is for the creation of a middle school multidisciplinary science curriculum project.

Pavlis is a tectonic geologist who has spent every summer but one in the last 28 years doing research in the mountains of Alaska. Pavlis is the lead investigator on the $4.5 million National Science Foundation Continental Dynamics St. Elias Erosion/ Tectonics Project (STEEP), which focuses on the links between climate and tectonics in a region characterized by active glacial erosion and massive earthquakes.

Serpa was attending a conference in Colorado when news of the impending hurricane reached her. The day before the hurricane hit, Pavlis was putting plywood over the windows of their home when he felt the wind pick up from the east. Within an hour, with the storm still 300 miles off shore, the water level rose 3 feet.

"I knew it was time to get out," says Pavlis. "I threw stuff in the car, picked up the two cats and left. I still thought I could put stuff on top of tables so the water wouldn't reach it. In the end, all the effort didn't make a difference."

In their seaside neighborhood of 200, only the shells of their house and three others remained. The high water mark in their home showed that the storm surge was 26 feet above sea level. Mud inches deep was upstairs and down. The walls of a neighbor's house were in their live oak tree.

At the University of New Orleans, the building their department shares with psychology sustained water damage. Mold and the remains of laboratory rats that died during the storm posed the biggest health concerns.

Pavlis evacuated to Baton Rouge, where he rendezvoused with Serpa. They had several offers of places to stay, but chose UMaine for the research facilities that allow them to continue their work on STEEP.


UMaine Today Magazine
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