Rice unbowed by Ike

Campus marred but students kept safe as storm punishes Texas coast

Rice News staff

Storms are frequent on the Texas Gulf Coast, but few pack the punch Hurricane Ike did when it swept across Galveston and into Greater Houston, bringing driving rain and Category 2-force winds to the metropolis.

Downed branches and toppled trees were the most visible evidence on campus of Ike's passage, though reports of damage to several buildings emerged as repair crews swept the campus after the storm. TOMMY LAVERGNE

National newscasts captured the gravity of the situation, showing buildings ripped apart by wind and surf and noting that millions of residents were still without power days later.

Knowing what a Gulf Coast hurricane can do, Rice was prepared for the challenge of keeping its students safe and not only returned the campus to normal in short order but also extended the generosity of its students and staff to its neighbors.

It was a shining moment in Rice history and effectively demonstrated the university’s commitment to its students and the community.

With chainsaws providing the soundtrack, life at Rice began a remarkable return to normalcy Tuesday. Classes reopened, crews cleared the streets and sidewalks and everybody had a storm story to tell.

Downed branches and toppled trees were the most visible evidence on campus of Ike’s passage, though reports of damage to several buildings emerged as repair crews swept the campus after the storm.

When classes resumed three days after Ike, it was with the acknowledgment that some students and staff, many of whom evacuated ahead of the storm, had personal affairs to attend to and wouldn’t be returning right away.

Even so, when President David Leebron asked how many of the assembled faculty were still without power Tuesday, more than two-thirds of the approximately 240 at a meeting in McMurtry Auditorium raised their hands.

Noting the level of commitment that alone shows, he told them, “Others are watching to see how we demonstrate in the next days and weeks both resilience and compassion, how we demonstrate both execution and understanding. Those are going to be the things that define us in the future.”

Leebron advised faculty, “Have on your minds some of the anxieties our students have. You will be confronting students in very different circumstances. Acknowledge that and demonstrate that we understand the challenges that some of our students are facing and encourage them to help each other.”

Stories poured in from all corners of the campus about students, staff and faculty doing just that.

Many undergraduate students who live off-campus were sheltered in their resident colleges on campus, where they had access to electrical power, drinking water and food. Students and staff expressed sympathy for others in the community and beyond, particularly in a devastated Galveston as well as areas of the Midwest that were hit hard by the remnants of Ike. Many Rice students took an activist role on campus and beyond, volunteering to help after and even before the storm hit. Students helped pack MREs — meals ready to eat — for themselves and others, including graduate students who were brought on campus to wait out the wind and rain at the student center and Janice and Robert McNair Hall. A few brought their families, and there were even a few infants among the 175 or so riding out the hurricane.

Among the latter were Rice Emergency Medical Services (EMS) students, part of a crew that spent the Thursday before the storm helping evacuate special-needs people. Andy Miller, William McGuinness, Lt. Paige Reilly and Capt. Michael Pandya spent their day inside the Mobile Incident Command Unit at Tully Stadium in Spring Branch, organizing ambulances and other emergency assets. Their efforts aided the safe transport of more than 10,000 special-needs evacuees, as well as patients at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.

On campus, crews were stationed in many places as Ike raged to keep students safe and operations running.

At the command center in the Founder’s Room in Lovett Hall, Barbara White Bryson, associate vice president for Facilities, Engineering and Planning, kept an eye on Ike as she and her team kept up with the flood of calls to get resources and repairs where they were needed.

The command center also served as a gathering site for members of the Crisis Management Team, headed by Vice President for Administration Kevin Kirby, who held regular conference calls with members off-campus as they assessed the impact of the storm, took action to deal with problems and provided regular communications to the Rice community, parents and general public on the Web site maintained by the Public Affairs staff.

“A number of us spent a fair amount of time at Lovett,” said Kirby in his Allen Center office on Tuesday, “but for the most intense part of the storm, I was up here. It was a little scary — the water came in through the windows on this side of the building, and the floor’s still a little damp.”

Kirby traversed the distance between Lovett and Allen in the early hours Saturday. “It was pretty intense,” he said. “I was out and around campus quite a bit, too. Some things you’ve got to see for yourself.”

Keeping everyone connected was challenging. At the Mudd Building, a small team worked to protect Rice’s information technology equipment despite wind-blown rain creeping in under the wooden roof.

South of campus at the new Primary Data Center, IT staffers were, like Kirby, anxiously watching the gusts through the huge glass façade while scrambling to keep campus servers powered up.

Kathryn Cavender, Rice’s director of Environmental Health and Safety, was holed up in the Abercrombie Engineering Laboratory, where she monitored the alarm system for the more than 40 buildings on the Rice campus and alerted Rice police or Facilities, Engineering and Planning crews if action was needed. “During the storm more than 70 alarms went off, and all were due to water leaks or electrical problems,” she said. “We had zero smoke and fire alarms Friday and Saturday.”

Leebron and his wife, University Representative Y. Ping Sun, rode out the storm with their children at their home on campus after spending Friday evening visiting with staff and students who hunkered down in residential colleges and other safe havens. His stream of messages on the Rice Web site provided much-needed comfort to their parents around the world.

And everywhere on campus, those sheltering from the storm pulled together to keep everybody safe. Students who were out flying kites in the tropical storm-strength winds early Friday evening knew soon enough to come in when Ike hit full-force.

At Martel College, class was in session. Oceanography professor and Martel master Jerry Dickens set up his projector and gave a Power Point presentation on hurricanes to about 40 students. “Since I was here on campus with many bright students, and we had something scientifically interesting happening, it seemed like a good idea,” he said.

Police Chief Bill Taylor had his team out patrolling the campus for safety or stationed in buildings to provide security.

As the storm waned, recovery operations kicked in.

Two members of the Rice University Police Department drove to Morgan City, La., where they met up with and provided an escort to Houston for a new motor needed to power a backup pump that draws water from Rice’s on-campus well if city water pressure remained low.

In the parking lot west of Rice Stadium, Texas Search and Rescue helicopters landed and a fleet of ambulances from Houston and beyond waited to take patients to the adjacent Texas Medical Center, after damage to a helipad at the center put it temporarily out of service.

While Rice and hired crews worked to clear the campus of downed branches, other damage was being assessed. “I think things will largely be back to normal by next week, and then we’ll have a backlog of things to work through,” said Kirby. “Some of those things will take many weeks, or perhaps a couple of months to get back to where we were a week ago, but we’ll be 90, perhaps 95 percent back to normal by Monday.”

Nobody on campus for Ike will likely forget the experience.

“It was one of the most amazing collaborations I’ve been part of in a long time,” said Athletics Director Chris Del Conte, who was instrumental in finding the replacement water pump motor brought to campus. “You can really tell a lot about someone’s mettle during a time of crisis like this, and everybody really came through. The pride of Rice really showed through this storm.”








About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.