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Beyond the News

Hurricane Sandy Response and Recovery

University Business, December 2012
Kutztown University (Pa.) was not as badly affected as places along the coast, but downed trees and extended power outages in the area were a challenge.
Kutztown University (Pa.) was not as badly affected as places along the coast, but downed trees and extended power outages in the area were a challenge.

Hurricane Sandy made landfall in Atlantic City, NJ, at the end of October, creating devastation up and down the East Coast. Over 100 people in the U.S. died as a result of the storm and millions were without power for weeks. College and university campuses were not immune to the damage. Many institutions evacuated residential students as a precaution before the storm and were then forced to cancel classes for the rest of the week due to lack of power, as at the University of Hartford (Conn.) or hazardous conditions in their surrounding community, as at Fairfield University (Conn).

According to a press release from Stony Brook University, part of the State University of New York system, students from the Southampton campus (located on the Long Island coast) were evacuated to the main campus for the duration of the storm. Later, that campus was used to house New York State troopers and emergency utility workers as needed. The campus hospital took in displaced patients from other hospitals on Long Island. Stony Brook only briefly lost power during the storm.

Fairfield University suffered just minor damage and maintained power across much of campus due to its co-generation plant. According to press releases, many students remained on campus, while accommodations were secured for 300 students who live in badly damaged off-campus housing at Fairfield Beach, an area that was under mandatory evacuation during the storm. Area faculty, staff, and alumni were asked to open their homes to the displaced students. President Jeffrey P. von Arx took four students into his home and may have his new housemates for several weeks.

Kutztown University (Pa.), located southwest of Allentown, was not as badly affected as places along the coast, but downed trees and extended power outages in the area were a challenge. In advance of the storm, campus leaders asked the 4,300 on-campus students to go home if they were able. “We knew we’d lose power,” explains Jerry Silberman, VP for administration and finance and head of the emergency management team. Forty students (about 1 percent) hailed from areas that were expected to be harder hit by the storm and remained on campus in an education center with food service capabilities. Just as campus leaders thought they were “getting out of the shelter business” the Wednesday after the storm, they learned some off-campus housing still didn’t have power, and set about converting the fitness center to accommodate those students.

Silberman credits their hazard mitigation planning for allowing a robust response, saying storms and power outages are their primary focus. Updating the emergency operations plan on an annual basis can be “boring and tedious,” he admits, "but when you’re dealing with an emergency you’re glad you spent the time to do it.”

Every emergency brings lessons. Last year they ran into problems after Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee when the supplier for their 10 diesel generators couldn’t deliver to campus. “We had to fill up small tanks of fuel and pump them by hand into the generators,” he recalls. As a result, they purchased a fuel tank with a battery pump that can be transported in a pickup truck. “It seems like a little thing but when you are faced with a lot of issues something small like that can mess you up.”

This year the challenge was communication issues, which might have been avoided by using realistic run-throughs. “If you have a training session in a comfortable room with coffee and muffins, it’s not the same as dealing with it in real life in the middle of the night,” Silberman says. “We need to simulate ‘game speed’ in our training sessions in the future so [staff] can learn to react as they should.”

New York University managed to feed and house students through the storm and its aftermath. “After the back-up power for our life- and fire-safety systems was depleted in those student residences that were on Con Ed solely, we relocated those students to other NYU facilities that continued to have power,” relates John Beckman Vice President of Communications and Public affairs. “We were able to maintain food service throughout through dining facilities in buildings that are powered by our co-generation plant.” The co-genration plant performed admirably, he adds. “In addition, we set up locations in buildings powered by our co-gen facility where students, faculty, and neighbors could charge phones, be warm, and get access to WiFi during the day.”

Communication proved to be a challenge since the damage extended to areas beyond the campus’ control. Email, Facebook, and a special website initially established for Sept. 11 were all employed. “Generally we received high marks for our communications efforts, though the lack of electricity presented challenges for some members of the community, and we are going to have look at how to build in an effective system for delivering hard copies of messages to key areas where they can be seen in the event of a similar electrical outage,” Beckman sayas.

Campus leaders are is soliciting feedback on their response to the storm. A response page was set up, with comments on how officials handled the storm and its recovery being collected by Alison Leary, executive VP for operations.