Higher Education Responses to Superstorm Sandy

They braved the cold, wind and darkness, finding themselves providing food, water and shelter to new friends and neighbors. In this way, students and administrators responded to Superstorm Sandy in the same way as many other New Jerseyans, as they found themselves thrust into leadership positions because the need was great and the time to act was short.

Rutgers, Rowan, Stockton and Monmouth universities were among the many to offer shelter and services to their communities. Most colleges and universities have stories about students, faculty and staff who kept people safe, dry and warm until the worst of the danger passed.

What follows are a few synopses of the small acts of heroism and the tireless efforts of hundreds of student volunteers who stepped up to help simply because it was the right thing to do.

Stevens Institute of Technology

Students at the Stevens Institute of Technology soon realized that their hometown of Hoboken was one of the hardest-hit communities in New Jersey. Allison Outwater, who graduated from Stevens in 2015, is the daughter of a first responder, but until Hurricane Sandy struck Hoboken and brought massive storm surge flooding and destructive high winds inches from the Stevens campus – she had never experienced an emergency situation first-hand.

“My dad volunteers with the local fire and first aid squads, so I kind of grew up watching emergencies happen, but they never affected me personally,” said Outwater, a Wall, N.J. native who was a double major in Mechanical and Civil Engineering. “But what happened so close to home here in Hoboken due to Hurricane Sandy was truly unbelievable. People lost their homes.” They were sleeping in stairwells, she said. It was “just devastating.”

Outwater’s family home suffered roof damage, and Outwater herself – who stayed at Stevens during the storm – was without electricity or heat for days. But despite the campus community’s hardships, she – like many Stevens students – reported to City Hall as soon as it was safe to aid the city in its recovery.

There was much to do. On Tuesday, Outwater was part of a team made up of many Stevens students who delivered water to a 25-story building without electricity or water. They worked past dinner time and were physically and mentally exhausted.

But sleep was the least of Outwater’s concerns. At 3 a.m. the next morning, she returned to City Hall to help staff the city’s call center.

Six hours later, Outwater found herself in charge of organizing hundreds of volunteers who reported for volunteer assignments on Wednesday.“

All of a sudden, I was the person responsible for getting all of the volunteers who showed up where they were most needed,” said Outwater, who was officially declared the volunteer coordinator for Hurricane Sandy by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer and her staff. “That first day there were about 300 people. The next day, there were 800.”

Throughout the week, Outwater managed countless recovery efforts which were instrumental in getting Hoboken residents the care they needed. Her role involved assigning tasks to teams of volunteers, responding to incoming requests for aid or specific issues volunteers brought back from the field, organizing sites to store donations of supplies, coordinating activities with the National Guard, FEMA, the City of Hoboken, emergency personnel, and more.

Outwater was aided by core volunteers Jacob Vanderbilt, Ed Kubis and Matt Linden of Stevens, who also dedicated most of their time and energy last week to the recovery efforts. In addition, Outwater estimated that 50 to 100 other Stevens’s students volunteered for at least one day.

One day, with Zimmer and other Stevens’s students, Vanderbilt rode a National Guard buffalo truck to a home for the elderly which had no water or power and was flooded by waist-deep water.

“The residents were totally cut off; they couldn’t get out,” he said.

The building was home to many Hispanic residents, and Vanderbilt – who studied Spanish in school – served as a translator. He helped canvass the building to identify seniors who needed to be evacuated and then helped to carry ailing residents down the stairs to safety.

Other volunteers delivered food, water, medications and generator fuel to individual residents or to distribution centers across the city. The centers stored the many supplies donated to Hoboken in the aftermath of the hurricane, including hundreds of thousands of ready-to-eat meals transported by enormous semi-trucks.“

The response of the public has been incredible,” said Outwater. “If you can get out to help, it is a life changing opportunity,” she said. “I can guarantee my life has been completely changed.”

Middlesex County College (MCC)

At Middlesex County College, the call came in Friday night, four days after the storm devastated New Jersey and the east coast. John Pulomena, the Middlesex County administrator, was on the line; he needed a place to house vulnerable people with medical conditions who had been displaced by the storm. A hospital stay wasn’t necessary – and the hospitals were overcrowded already – but the patients would need more care than a regular shelter could provide.

MCC’s Physical Education Center was the perfect location and College President Joann La Perla-Morales didn’t hesitate to approve. And so began 11 days of disruption and inconvenience, but also a spot-on example of caring and community service.

Over the weekend, campus work crews moved the bleachers, the wrestling mat and other equipment. Two generators – one from the County and one from the College – were installed to provide backup electricity if needed.

MCC workers lowered a protective covering over the gym floor, and assisted the Center for Disease Control with delivery of hundreds of crates of supplies and cots. The Department of Information Technology installed phone lines and provided data access. One classroom was turned into a pharmacy.

Washers and dryers normally used for athletic team uniforms were pressed into service to clean clothes and linens for the patients, and the College food service vendor began serving meals. Campus Police handled security, along with backup from the County Sheriff’s Office. Practice for the basketball teams was moved to Edison High School. Classes were relocated to other buildings and a volleyball class suddenly became an outdoor tennis class. Recreation programs were put on hold.

The gym was turned over to the United States Department of Public Health Services, a military, uniformed service consisting of officers assigned to various agencies such as Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, and the Center for Disease Control.

In total, 115 patients were served over the eight days of occupancy, and medical issues they faced were more critical than predicted. Many patients were transported home by local clergy. Just as the operation was winding down, a Nor’easter dumped three inches of snow on the campus, complicating efforts to move patients.

The entire community pulled together. When the community was in need, Middlesex County College delivered.

Stories from Campuses around the State

• When Hurricane Sandy hit, the New Jersey Institute of Technology launched a comprehensive initiative to help the state recover.

Efforts included the creation of The Center for Resilient Design. Through applied research, field testing and community outreach, the center provided residents, business owners, design professionals and government officials with ready-to-build designs and other expertise for disaster recovery in areas hard hit by the storm.

Through (Re)Build New Jersey Strong, a weeklong community service effort that took place during spring break, more than 600 NJIT students, faculty and alumni came together to help residents, businesses and government agencies recover and rebuild. The work took volunteers to places ranging from Newark, where they helped reinforce a library in the city’s Ironbound section, to Brick Township, where they redesigned a housing complex decimated by flooding and fire.

Daily buses left the NJIT campus filled with students and others in bright yellow t-shirts. Assignments involved cleaning up beaches and/or parks; deconstructing homes (i.e., pulling out wall boards, shoveling mud out of basements); building new structures; finishing work such as painting or simple carpentry; and survey work such as collecting data and information.

A few days after the storm hit, NJIT’s Center for Natural Resources Development and Protection (NRDP) received funding from the National Science Foundation to study the impact of the storm on the New Jersey shoreline. Michel Boufadel, director of NRDP and professor of environmental engineering, led a team to Laurence Harbor on Raritan Bay to evaluate the shift and erosion of the sand. The team also measured the runoff of fertilizers, pesticides and other compounds into the Bay and studied how the wetlands held up in the storm. Closer to the NJIT campus, the team assessed how the storm-related influx of seawater into the Passaic River affected the fish population.

“We had two focuses,” Boufadel said. “Evaluate the mobilization of hazardous compounds from a superfund slag site in Laurence Harbor; and evaluate the return of the ecosystem to its pre-storm conditions. We learned that large quantities of hazardous metals (lead, mercury, chromium) were mobilized into people’s yards and potentially houses. We also learned that it took around two months for the salinity in the wetland in Cheesequake Creek to return to pre-storm conditions. The devastation was overwhelming as there were 30 foot boats perched on roofs.”

NJIT Associate Professor Georgeen Theodore and her Brooklyn-based Interboro Partners led a team that received a $125 million “Rebuild by Design” grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for “Living with the Bay,” a comprehensive regional resiliency plan for Nassau County’s South Shore. The plan focused on adaptive measures including mitigating the damage from storm surge, storm water runoff, and sea level rise by recovering the sediment system and strategically deploying protective measures like constructed marshes, dikes and cross-structures along the urbanized edge; managing storm water in order to mitigate the damage from common rain events as well as improve the water quality in the bay; and expanding housing options in high and dry areas near public transportation.

“After the storm,” Theodore said, “I decided to develop a studio course so that my students and I could contribute our research and design work to rebuilding efforts. The subject of the studio was the rebuilding of New Jersey in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. The scope of rebuilding was overwhelming, and at the time, most post-disaster efforts were local, and as a matter of necessity, focused on immediate needs. In contrast to the ‘let’s rebuild now!’ mantra that was being repeated and organized on a town-by-town basis, this studio worked to examine the larger, regional design opportunities confronting New Jersey, and seek ways to interlink these opportunities with local initiatives. Working on the ground with representatives of the Regional Catastrophic Planning Team (NY-NJ-CT-PA), the Department of Homeland Security, Architecture for Humanity, FEMA, and with local community members, the studio developed designs that purposefully negotiated between the urgent need for visionary, large-scale planning and demands to restore what was there. The studio created a New Jersey Atlas, which has been cited and recognized.”

At Fairleigh Dickinson University, students hunkered down in the Ferguson Recreation Center, unrolling blankets and sleeping bags. One student even set up a tent.

“It was almost like a big slumber party, said campus life graduate assistant Anthony Pace.

A canned food drive sponsored by the Student Government Association on Metropolitan yielded 1,000 pounds of donations to benefit the food pantry in Hackensack.

Caldwell University alumnus Joseph Tompey was a lieutenant in the Spring Lake Heights Fire Department when Sandy blasted New Jersey.

He spent three days helping with the rescue, answering calls for downed wires, toppled trees and carbon monoxide alarms. After the storm, he lived in the back of a fire truck for 14 hours on two separate days, using the light from the truck to help police check identifications of residents who wanted to return to their homes near the beach.

Sheila O’Rourke, vice president for institutional effectiveness, said the storm, as terrible as it was, may have had a silver lining.

“It proved that we really are a community,” she said. “People looked after each other.”

The College of New Jersey, in May 2015, launched the Hurricane Sandy Oral History Project. Seventy-five stories were collected from ordinary people who shared their experiences from the storm so that future generations could understand the significance of the event.

Among those who shared their stories was Brian Garofalo who described how the storm destroyed his Beach Bar in Seaside Heights. In a story written by Kelly Heyboer of the Star-Ledger, Garofalo described how he and his wife evacuated their Toms River home in the dark, carrying out their sleeping children as the first floor began to flood.

At Georgian Court University, days after the storm struck, the student affairs office started “GCU Cares,” a web page with updates and a query form for students who needed help. An alumni donor appeal, already at the press, was rewritten, asking donors to give to a special fund for students affected by Sandy. It was a success, and an additional $38,000 was raised to replace soaked textbooks and laptops, and to buy bus passes for students whose cars were flooded.

At New Jersey City University (NJCU), 126 of NJCU’s fire science majors worked throughout the storm in nearly every county in New Jersey, either as volunteers or at their career ranks, ranging from firefighter or EMT to chief of operations.

• Thanks to Princeton University’s “microgrid,” a self-contained on-campus power generation and delivery network that is capable of producing 13 megawatts of electricity, the campus was able to remain operational when the electricity went out during the storm.  The university served as a place of refuge for police, firefighters, paramedics and other emergency services workers, who were provided with free meals and used the campus as a staging ground. Princeton students also collected 200 bags of clothes and shoes; 85 bags of children’s clothes, toys, shoes and diapers; 60 bags of toiletries; 55 bags of food; and 40 bags of household items that were distributed to communities in need.

William Paterson University was without power for eight days. The institution had more than 2,000 students in residence when the storm struck. Although many left to return home after the storm subsided, 600 stayed throughout the week. The University’s Institutional Advancement Office set up an Emergency Student Relief Fund to help students who suffered losses during the storm. In addition, the university’s Office of Campus Activities and Student Leadership sponsored three community service trips in spring 2013 to the Jersey Shore to assist with cleanup efforts.

At Union County College, in the aftermath of the storm, the primary concern was for student and staff safety while also maintaining academic integrity and ensuring business continuity. The Elizabeth and Plainfield campuses opened two and three days, respectively, after the onslaught of the storm. The Cranford campus, however, remained dark into early November.

To jumpstart the reopening of the Cranford campus, Union County College President Dr. Margaret M. McMenamin was joined by a group of approximately 40 employees who called themselves the “Hurricane Sandy Recovery Team.” This group focused on the logistics involved in reopening the college including moving the Cranford classes to another campus location or to an online platform. Considering that 60 percent of the college’s classes are held on the Cranford campus, this was no small task.

The Recovery Team worked throughout the first weekend in November from a central command post that was established on the Elizabeth campus. The Recovery Team included faculty and staff who worked 12-hour days throughout that first weekend in November. The command post consisted of banks of computers for faculty to communicate with students or to move their previously in-person courses into an online format, phone hotlines for students and faculty to receive updates on courses, and information tables on the Elizabeth campus in order to direct Cranford students to their alternative classroom locations.

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