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Lessons from Irene applied while preparing for Sandy

Administrators were in unmarked territory during Hurricane Irene last August.

As Hurricane Irene curved menacingly up the Eastern seaboard in 2011 while university students were making preparations for a new semester, Temple officials were largely facing a big decision. By the time Sandy made landfall in New Jersey as a tropical storm last week, Temple was ready.

Such powerful storms seldom threaten Main Campus, providing university leadership with unique lessons in emergency preparedness when they do. Irene didn’t affect classes when it rolled through the area in August 2011, but it did force planners from a wide cross section of the university to have serious questions that led to them having ready answers when Sandy forced the campus to close on Oct. 29 and Oct. 30.

“We really weren’t sure what was going to happen,” Deputy Director of Campus Safety Services Charlie Leone said, referring to the days and hours leading up to Hurricane Irene. “It was virgin territory.”

A series of university meetings held before last year’s storm discussed worst case scenarios involving everything from flooding to power outages and whether Temple’s buildings could stand up to sustained hurricane force winds more commonly found whipping waves on Southeastern coastlines.

Last week’s “Frankenstorm,” much like Irene, largely spared Temple and Philadelphia as a whole. Still, many in the nearby area experienced power outages, flooding and fallen tree limbs.

James Creedon, senior vice president for construction, facilities and management, drove to Bethlehem, Pa., to find his home without power two days after the storm had passed.

He led an operations team in hurricane proofing Main Campus in the days before the Sandy arrived. Vehicles had to be fueled, potential debris had to be cleared or secured, generators had to be prepared and staff – many of whom would weather the storm on Main Campus – had to be protected.

“On a typical day we are off running operations and reporting to different people, but during these emergencies everyone had to come together and work together,” Creedon said.

The complex plans and procedures needed to pull off such a feat largely arose during the drum up to Hurricane Irene a year earlier, Leone said.

“This time we probably increased in our communication within the university and the executive leadership with the on site command having these planning meetings ongoing while the storm was coming,” Leone said. “Absolutely everything from computer services to Student Affairs to Dining Services, all these groups that were in there, now we see how beneficial it was for us to work together.”

The organization was apparent to freshman kinesiology major Shauni Kerkhoff, who said she was surprised to find dining hours at Johnson and Hardwick cafeteria unchanged in the midst of the wind and rain.

“I come here like every day and it was really just running the same as it always had,” she said. “The staff was really polite and nice even though a lot of them had to stay the night there. One lady said she wasn’t getting off work until 12:30 that night.”

Leone said officers pulled 12 and 24-hour shifts to make sure Main Campus was secure during the storm. He said one lesson moving forward to the next emergency would be providing more for the critical staff that stays behind.

University planners see such lessons as a silver lining in the storm clouds. Creedon noted a renewed interest in using social media to communicate with students and their families after receiving positive responses to the university’s outreach over Facebook and Twitter during the storm.

“We had a team monitoring [social media] and responding so that people could feel a sense of calm,” he said.

A wide spectrum of university officials will contribute to and evaluate innumerable after-action reports in the coming weeks, but officials said surprises are still possible.

“There will always be something in it that will throw you a curve and you’ll have to react to it,” Creedon said. “You hope you’ve got it covered next time.”

Jad Sleiman can be reached at jad.sleiman@temple.edu. 

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