WC Shaken, then Stirred

By Maegan Clearwood
News Editor

Aside from two damaged chimneys and some fallen tree branches, there is little physical evidence of the earthquake and hurricane that struck Washington College preceding this fall semester.

According to Dean of Students, Vice President of Student Affairs and Emergency Policy Group member Mela Dutka, the Emergency Operations Group (EOP) determined the proper course of action following these events. The EOG is a congregation of various faculty and staff members that meets monthly to “improve and examine crisis planning” on campus.

When a 5.8 magnitude earthquake battered Virginia at 1:50 p.m. on Tuesday, August 23, students all along the East Coast felt the tremors; coincidentally, it struck 10 minutes before the EOP’s scheduled monthly meeting.

Dutka said the EOP instituted an immediate visual check of buildings and facilities on campus, and staff members were allowed to return home to check on family. Later, an engineering consultant was called to identify any potential problems.

Less than a week later, as early-arrival students moved in and incoming freshmen prepared for their first semester at WC, news forecasts were flooded with warnings of the impending Hurricane Irene. Although the storm’s progress was difficult to predict, Dutka said the EOP started evaluating options “as the weather forecast took place more squarely on our doorstep.”

Freshmen moved in on the morning of August 25; a few hours later, a campus-wide email was sent out encouraging students to return home for the storm.

“We had a unique opportunity,” Dutka said. “If we delay start of school, first-years were already moved in, and many parents were still here. They were in a position to take children back with them.”

Residence Assistants and peer mentors were encouraged but not required to remain on campus.

The evacuation process went smoothly, Dutka said.

“Most understood what we, and they, were preparing for. A lot of students and parents understood,” she said. “We wanted to keep safe all who stayed but the smaller the population, the easier it was going to be.”
Dutka said almost 200 students stayed on campus during the storm.

According to Director of Buildings and Grounds Reid Raudenbush, preparations for the storm included protecting doors with sandbags in case of flooding, removing air conditioners around campus, moving loose items such as trashcans inside, and taking signs off fences. At the Customs House, everything downstairs was moved to storage.

Students on campus rode out the storm in Minta Martin, Dutka said. The building is one of the sturdiest on campus, is located closest to the hospital, and just had a summer makeover, making it the ideal location for students to spend the night.

Dutka said Minta Martin windows were boarded up before the storm hit, and students were not allowed on the fourth floor. RAs and peer mentors checked all the residence halls on campus before the storm to ensure everyone was in the correct building.

Students checked in to Minta Martin at 4 p.m. on August 27 and were not allowed to leave the building after 8 p.m., Dutka said.

Raudenbush said there were emergency supplies provided for students as well as a backup generator, but Minta Martin did not lose power. Dutka said, aside from those on the Western Shore, no WC buildings lost power because of the storm.

Luckily, Irene did not batter WC as much as anticipated.

“We were very lucky,” Raudenbush said. “We had very little tree damage; I thought for sure we were going to lose some big trees. People have said we were blessed, and we really were blessed compared to other parts of the country.”

Aside from losing a few small trees and tree limbs, minor flooding, and a few leaks, damage was minimal, he said. The work on the geothermal well on the green was not impeded either.

Students were not allowed to return to or move onto campus until Tuesday, August 30, and classes were postponed until the next day.

“We were all very conscious in terms of what the impact on school was,” Dutka said. “The biggest challenge was that everyone not here had to move in Tuesday. We had a fair amount of work to do [beforehand], we needed all day [Monday]. People put in long hours to do the work necessary.”

Aside from cleaning up debris and checking for any problems, Buildings and Grounds also had to replace the air conditioners removed before the storm.

Overall, Dutka said she and the EOG were pleased with how the preparation and clean-up process went.

“Students and families were very patient,” she said. “Freshmen arrived in a torrential rainstorm. The first session [for parents] was called ‘letting go,’ then we told them to take their students home.”

Although classes were postponed and move-in was disrupted, Dutka said the experience had its benefits.

“We learned a lot about how to respond [to emergency situations],” she said.

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