In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which tore apart cities along the Gulf Coast and has left New Orleans virtually uninhabitable, Yale and several other American universities will allow students from New Orleans colleges to take classes on a temporary basis until their own campuses reopen.

The damage to New Orleans’ infrastructure is massive, and Louisiana officials predict that the city may be closed for months, making it practically impossible for colleges in the city, such as Tulane University, Loyola University New Orleans, Xavier University of Louisiana and Dillard University, to conduct a fall semester. Early reports estimate that about 80,000 college students in the area may be affected.

Yale President Richard Levin said late Thursday that the University will open its gates for students enrolled in affected colleges to take classes at Yale. The decision was made in concert with the Association of American Universities, which represents 62 major research universities, including Tulane.

“This would be a complete exception to our normal policy,” Levin said. “This would be a major national tragedy. We’d like to come up with some sensible scheme nationwide to give students a place to study this year.”

Yale officials had not worked out the details of the plan as of last night. It is unknown how many New Orleans students would be allowed to enroll in classes, whether they would be housed on campus and how long they would be permitted to stay. It also was unclear how students would be selected and when they would arrive.

What is clear is that any New Orleans students who come to Yale would not be degree candidates at the University, but rather would earn credits that they could transfer to their own colleges once they reopen, Levin said.

AAU spokesman Barry Toiv said the association received offers similar to Yale’s from several other member colleges. Universities’ offers have varied, Toiv said, as some schools said they could provide housing and others could not. Some public universities, including the University of Virginia, offered temporary admission specifically for residents of their states.

“The higher education community really wants to step up to the plate here, and I think they’ll do that,” Toiv said.

The American Council on Education also is working with universities in the Gulf Coast to help coordinate relief efforts and help students who are displaced, the council’s president, David Ward, said in a statement released Wednesday.

“Despite the scope of this challenge, I know that the creative energy of more than 3,000 U.S. colleges and universities will soon be brought to bear to help our Gulf Coast institutions rebuild and renew themselves for the challenges ahead,” Ward said.

Several universities — Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Virginia and the State University of New York, among others — yesterday offered to enroll students from New Orleans colleges for the semester.

Yale is working with the AAU to develop a nationwide mechanism to most efficiently accommodate as many students as possible from the New Orleans colleges.

“Our preference is to have some kind of scheme to coordinate what students are assigned to what university,” Levin said.

The Yale admissions office has already received calls from several students and their families asking about enrolling at the University, Levin said. Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said the administration wants to avoid a “first come, first serve” selection system.

“We can sympathize with the goal of allowing students who are facing incredible disruption in their lives to at least continue their educations without a major interruption,” Salovey said.

Relief efforts at Yale are not only coming from the administration. Stephanie Speirs ’07 said she is launching an effort to raise money for the Red Cross relief effort in the Gulf Coast region.

“I want to, for the next week, be outside every residential dining hall and Commons, and even a table on Cross Campus, to collect money,” she said.

Speirs, a staff reporter and photographer for the News, said she launched her plan when she realized that no one had stepped forward to coordinate fund raising for the disaster on campus.

“Also, my aunt’s in Texas, which could have easily been affected if the winds had changed,” she said. “It could easily have happened anywhere.”

Universities in New Orleans have not yet finalized their plans for the next semester, but it has become increasingly clear that the flooded city will not be habitable for many weeks at least.

Following the storm, Tulane, which has a main campus in uptown New Orleans and a medical campus downtown, has faced communication problems due to the city’s power outages. The university’s administration yesterday set up a command center in Houston, Texas, where President Scott Cowen and top officials expect to announce plans for the fall semester by Saturday. Tulane’s Web server is damaged, and the school is running an emergency Web log with frequent updates from Cowen.

Immediately following the storm, officials were hoping for the best. In a post Wednesday, Cowen wrote that he was still considering a start date for the fall semester. His latest message, posted yesterday at 4 p.m., said the campus fared comparatively well during the storm.

“There are many downed trees, some buildings sustained water damage, and some roofing tiles were damaged,” Cowen wrote. “The necessary repairs are manageable. The dorms are intact and students’ belongings are safe.”

The hurricane struck amid Tulane’s freshman orientation program, and many first-year students were evacuated to Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss., last Friday and Saturday after it appeared the storm would hit New Orleans. A JSU news release said the movement of 400 Tulane students to their campus was based on a pre-existing agreement between the schools. After the hurricane, Tulane encouraged students to return home and bused many of them from Jackson to Dallas and Atlanta, to be closer to major airports. Students were housed at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

“They put out a call to several universities, and we just answered the call,” Georgia Tech spokesman David Terraso said. “We only had about 12 hours’ notice from when we found out they were coming to when they arrived.”

Most of the students have already left Georgia Tech to go home, Terraso said. But some international graduate students, who could not make plans to go home on such short notice, are still being housed in an apartment complex near Georgia Tech. Terraso said most of those students are waiting to book tickets home from Atlanta until Tulane announces a reopening date. Some students at the Tulane School of Public Health are making arrangements to continue the next semester at Emory University, also in Atlanta, he said.

Terraso said it was not a special relationship between universities that prompted Georgia Tech to offer to house the Tulane students, but rather a natural reaction to the disaster.

“While the students were here, and even right now, we’ve been getting lots of offers from individuals and companies offering to house students,” he said. “Based on the outpouring of offers we’ve gotten, I have to think it’s kind of a universal reaction.”