Recovering After Sandy

October 31, 2012

Monday’s howling winds and pounding rains largely gave way to quiet Tuesday as Hurricane Sandy left many colleges and universities along the Atlantic coast damaged, without power, and waiting to determine when classes could begin again.

Colleges from Virginia to Maine closed Monday, some of them sending students home as early as Saturday, to brace for the storm, which knocked out power to 8.1 million customers in 17 states and boasted sustained winds of up to 80 miles per hour.

New York and New Jersey largely bore the brunt of the storm, and some colleges there are unsure when they will open again.

“This will be a marathon, not a sprint,” Jay Hershenson, senior vice chancellor for university relations at the City University of New York, wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed describing the recovery process. “It will take time to assess the physical damage and academic calendar consequences.”

Four CUNY campuses – Borough of Manhattan Community College, Kingsborough Community College, Hunter College’s Brookdale campus, and Queens College – suffered significant damage, including flooding, downed power lines, and ruined roofs. Additionally, a 23-year-old M.F.A. student at Brooklyn College was killed by a falling tree while out walking his dog with his girlfriend.

All CUNY colleges are closed at least through Wednesday, and several of the campuses are being used by the city as shelters for residents who have been evacuated.

At least two colleges, the State University of New York Maritime College and Wagner College, have already canceled classes through the end of the week. Wagner, located on Staten Island, lost power, and reported about a dozen trees down and several windows blown out. Maritime, located on a peninsula at the tip of the Bronx, suffered damage to the roof of its science and engineering building, in addition to some flooding. On Tuesday it was running on emergency power only, with no hot water and no Internet or phone connectivity, according to David Doyle, SUNY’s director of communications.

Other SUNY campuses were also hit hard by the storm, with power outages at six other campuses and downed trees at two.

New York University lost power, but reported only minimal damage. Fordham University and Columbia University also came away relatively unscathed.

A number of colleges are still waiting for power to return, preventing them from announcing an official reopening date. Princeton University, where most students are away on fall break, has closed its campus through Wednesday because it has only limited power, supplied by its own cogeneration plant; Monmouth University in New Jersey is waiting for power to return; and Atlantic Cape Community College in New Jersey is still waiting for power to return to two of its three campuses.

“The only campus that has power is the Cape May county campus,” President Peter Mora said. “The other two have no power, so that’s kind of a no-brainer.”

Mora said he hopes to open all three campuses, two of which are on New Jersey’s barrier islands, at the same time.

Though the campuses survived the storm in good condition -- Mora points out that the Atlantic City campus is toward the middle of the island, which he believes helped a lot – officials are unsure when they’ll be able to restart classes because transportation to and from the barrier islands, which can only be reached by bridge, has been banned.

“We were actually pretty lucky,” Mora said. “But the question is, who can get here? And the answer to that is not many people.”

At least half of Atlantic Cape's students, instructors and employees are from the islands, Mora said, and with the potential that students or faculty living on the mainland might need to get to one of the island colleges, Mora and his emergency preparedness staff can only wait and continue to assess the situation based on the state’s recovery process. Mora did say there’s a chance the system could open without the Atlantic City campus, but right now he’s taking it day by day.

The same debate is taking place at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, according to Sharon Schulman, chief executive officer for external affairs and institutional research there. Everything is basically cleaned up, Schulman said, but officials aren't sure the college can open until the bridges between the barrier islands and the mainland do.

Transportation Troubles

Even outside of the Jersey shore, transportation is one of the biggest question marks as colleges debate when to reopen and bring students, faculty, and staff back to campus. With roads, airports, trains and public transportation shut down in a number of major East Coast cities, college officials are trying to judge when they can reasonably expect students and employees to get back to campus.

“If MTA is not running, if the subway and the buses are not running, that’s certainly going to be a factor in getting back to our regular schedule,” said Dominic Scianna, associate vice president for external relations at St. John’s University, in Queens, N.Y. Scianna said the university had one utility pole go down, but otherwise was “very lucky.”

The University of Delaware is planning to open the campus Wednesday and commence classes on Thursday, hoping the extra day will ease transportation issues.

“One of the reasons we canceled classes [Wednesday] is because a lot of our student population is coming from Northeast states,” said Emergency Manager Marcia Nickle. “We know that transportation on Amtrak is still suspended, so we’re trying to give students a little more time to get back to campus.”

Because the university asked students to leave ahead of the storm, about 5,000 students will have to find a way back to campus by Thursday. Nickle noted, however, that the university has instructed professors not to put at a disadvantage students who might have problems getting back in time.

Delaware State University is in a similar situation, according to its director of media services, Carlos Holmes, in that it is physically ready to open, but doesn’t want students to end up in dangerous situations if they try to rush the trip back to campus.

“Whatever we decide," he said, "we’re going to make sure students aren’t penalized if they can’t get back."

 

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