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Tribe pulls together to face Hurricane Irene

  • Storm assessment
    Storm assessment  President Reveley talks to two graduate students near a fallen tree on the campus of William & Mary.  Photo by Erin Zagursky
  • Heading out
    Heading out  Students head to the Williamsburg train station on Friday morning to head out of town. Many students helped provide housing to others who didn't have a place to go during the storm.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Fallen tree
    Fallen tree  William & Mary staff members worked throughout the weekend and on Monday to removed storm debris from campus.  Photo by Erin Zagursky
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Kylee Ponder ’12 knows major hurricanes. Her hometown of Franklin, Va., received national media attention in 1999 for flooding and damage caused by Hurricane Floyd and then again in 2003 for Hurricane Isabel. When Ponder received a campus e-mail last Thursday, telling students to evacuate campus in advance of Hurricane Irene’s arrival, she didn’t hesitate.

“I quickly left Swem (where I was being a responsible student and printing out the mass amounts of reading I have for class), packed up necessities, locked up my house, and bounced,” she blogged.

Ponder was among thousands of students who left the College’s residence halls by noon on Friday. Though the hurricane threatened to do its worst, its approach didn’t stop the William & Mary community from pulling together and offering assistance to one another in advance of the storm.

“It’s things like that that make me remember why I came here,” Ponder wrote on her William & Mary blog, “because it’s not just the fact that I texted all of my OA (orientation aide) boys to make sure they were safe and had places to stay, or the fact that a good friend went to my house and put my potted plant and garden flag inside because I forgot to, or the fact that people who have PhDs and are fancy deans of admission offer me places to stay.

“It’s the fact that when the Tribe is in danger, we all pull together and make sure that we protect our own – that’s our common interest – each other.”

Coming together

When the College began closing down on Friday afternoon, the community began coming together.

Shanay Butler, administrative assistant, and Jeanne Smith, office manager, went through the English department on Friday and turned off their colleagues’ computers and printers in preparation for the storm.

“We did that only because whatever affects one person in our department affects us all,” Butler said. “If I weren’t here, I know that someone would do the same for me.”

Faculty, staff, students and community members offered assistance to students who were unable to leave the area following Friday’s mandatory evacuation of residence halls.

The Reves Center for International Studies sent a message to international students living off campus and community members who participate in the Global Friends Host Family program, asking if anyone would be willing to host international students for the weekend.

“The response was amazing. We were able to assist everyone who needed a place to go and we still had 49 extra spaces,” said Stephen Sechrist, director international students, scholars and programs at the Reves Center.

“It is times like these that remind me of the generosity and warmth of our community.”

William and Cynthia Bryant were two of the community members who offered their home in the Yorkshire subdivision of Williamsburg to students in need of a place to go.

“We enjoyed our student tremendously and feel we have a new friend,” they said. “She really helped make the ordeal less trying because she is a great conversationalist and very warm personally. She helped keep our mind off the storm and was always cheerful and sweet. She is a real asset as an ambassador for W&M.”

The couple added that they thought the Reves Center “did a very professional and compassionate job finding homes for their students.”


Jarrett Walker ‘13, who was a counselor for the William & Mary PLUS program this summer, hosted three of the students he mentored through that program at his off-campus apartment. Walker said the weekend started great as they enjoyed each other’s company – and having electricity.

“However, Friday night we lost power and because of this I really had the opportunity to learn more about them,” Walker said. “The inability to use technology made us talk more about a myriad of topics including: politics, family, religion, music, and, most importantly, personal backgrounds.”

Because the power didn’t come back on, Walker took the students to his hometown of Chesapeake where they met his family and enjoyed a cookout hosted by his mothers.

As of Tuesday, Walker still did not have power in his apartment.

“Although this sounds terrible to most, it actually gave us an opportunity to really learn about each other,” Walker said. “It was somewhat like an adventure because we ended up in some really entertaining and ridiculous situations.”

Rashi Bhutani MBA ’13, who lives with Mohan Surya Chitrapu off of Ironbound Road, MBA ’12, hosted a sophomore from Korea during the storm.

“Friday was relatively a peaceful day, we got time to interact and talk about our countries' religion and history,” he said. “On Saturday, Angela spent majority of the day studying, absolutely unfazed by the noise of the TV - my flatmate and I were glued to the TV. As advised, we were indoors throughout the day. In the evening, my classmate at Mason School staying in Bristol Commons invited us for dinner. This was a good break from the monotony of day that was spent primarily in following the news on Irene.”

They lost power around 8:30 p.m. Saturday night, but Bhutani said that they “weren’t scared as much as we would have been had we been alone by ourselves.”

“I was quietly relieved to have someone stay with us who was so calm and composed throughout the nature's drama,” he said.

Like Walker and Bhutani, Marissa Spencer ’15 offered her house as a possible evacuation location for other students. Though no one ended up staying with her in Yorktown, five of her hall-mates did take her up on her offer for a ride back to campus.

“I drove an hour and a half to Richmond, took them to Williamsburg and then returned back home,” she said. “Of course there went half of my gas tank, but I was more than happy to help out members of the Tribe, because we're family.”

Behind the scenes

Though William & Mary experienced some minor flooding and the loss of several large trees, the campus did not sustain any major damage in the storm. The College’s Emergency Management Team and many others worked throughout the weekend to monitor and mitigate the hurricane’s impact on William & Mary.

William & Mary police officers worked around the clock throughout the storm to protect campus and make sure it was ready for students to return on Tuesday. In preparation for Irene, police officers checked all buildings and residence halls Friday afternoon to secure windows and doors, said Chief of Police Don Challis.  

According to Challis, at least eight officers were on campus Saturday through Sunday morning as Irene hit the Williamsburg area. The officers made continuous patrols of campus buildings and grounds to determine the level of damage. After the worst of the storm was over, officers assessed the damage of residence halls and office spaces. Reports of water leaks, downed power lines and fallen trees were relayed back to Facilities Management so cleanup work could begin.

“Our team did a good job in tough conditions,” said Challis. “We worked long hours, but there was a camaraderie between the officers and Facilities Management. We all knew we had a job to do.”

Throughout the storm, the W&M Police Department worked with local jurisdictions at the City Emergency Operations Center. All personnel worked together efficiently, said Challis, to solve issues throughout the community.

Connectivity was alive on the campus of William & Mary throughout the duration of Hurricane Irene this weekend.  

Both the network and phone system stayed up during the entire storm, according to Chief Information Officer Courtney Carpenter. This was especially important for researchers at VIMS (Virginia Institute of Marine Science), which used a “Super Computer” during the storm to run surge models. More than six hours of forecast storm surge information was fed to the National Weather Service.

On Wednesday, Information Technology began preparing for the storm.  Backup generators were tested at Jones Hall, along with system checks of the network.

William & Mary’s network is a great system that’s pretty fault-tolerant, said Carpenter.  He emphasized, though, that the network really depends on the hard work done by those in Facilities Management to keep the power going on campus.

Carpenter said IT monitored all systems from an off-campus location during the storm. When the storm subsided on Sunday, several colleagues traveled to campus to check on the system. 

Facilities Management used lessons learned from Hurricane Isabel in 2003 to prepare for Irene.

“The College, with the blessing of the state as far as funding for an emergency generator upgrade project, has made significant improvements in its ability to maintain power to critical facilities,” said Associate Vice President for Facilities Management Dave Shepard. “The College was very lucky this time. The power on the main campus stayed up almost throughout the whole evolution, which was much different than Isabel, when we were out completely for almost a week. In this case, we were almost completely restored to power on Sunday night.”

“Problem” buildings where it had been determined water could be stopped were sand-bagged prior to the storm, Shepard said.

About 20 people from grounds and maintenance worked on Saturday, keeping street and building drains open to minimize flooding or water intrusion. Once the winds started revving up and the rain became heaviest, those men were pulled off the street and some were sent to local hotels to rest. Those were the first crews back on campus on Sunday morning to assess damage. At all times, crews were monitored for the amount of rest they were getting; at least two members of the team slept during the day so they could be awake and fresh for overnight Saturday duty. Members of the housekeeping staff also came in over the weekend to help with clean-up efforts.

“Everybody who was here had a job to do and every one of them did beyond expectations, as they normally do when we have a crisis-type situation,” Shepard said. “Hard to single out one person; the guys who went around keeping the storm drains clear and doing what they could to stem the flow of water were exceptional.”

With the help of a generator at the Commons Dining Hall, Dining Services served one hot meal on Saturday and Sunday for approximately 60 workers from several campus departments. They also put together box lunches and box dinners “so people could grab and go,” consisting of sandwiches, chips, fruit and dessert, Davis said.

“I’m very proud of everyone who worked to make sure others had something to eat,” said Carolyn Davis, director of auxiliary services.

“I am tremendously proud of everybody,” Shepard added. “From our perspective, our thanks go out to Auxiliary Services and Dining Services. They did a great job keeping the staff fed. We really appreciate it. The whole emergency team did a great job as far as communicating. It went very, very smoothly.”

Matt Trowbridge, university arborist, has begun assessing the damage to the College’s trees. Initial reports were that 40 trees of different sizes -- some substantial -- came down, cracked or had other significant damage. The College has engaged a vendor to do the bulk of the tree removal; that work began on Sunday afternoon and continues.

Irene’s heavy rains muddied the archaeological excavation site at the base of the Brafferton.

“We’re mucking it today,” Jeff Brown, a member of the archaeology crew, said on Tuesday.

Though the conditions may have set the work schedule back, it did no damage to the dig, Brown said.

Déjà vu

For some William & Mary alumni, the approach of Hurricane Irene brought on a feeling of déjà vu. In 2003, another “I”-named hurricane caused the evacuation of campus: Isabel.

Van Smith ’03, J.D. ’07 was working at the College as the director of public outreach when Isabel struck the Hampton Roads area in September of 2003.

“Looking back, the hurricane in 2003 and 9/11 really drew the community together, got us off email, and was a great ‘bonding’ moment,” Smith said.

Jim Ducibella, Megan Shearin, Brian Whitson and Erin Zagursky contributed to this story