All hands on deck!

Planning, teamwork kept students fed and safely sheltered

Rice News staff

The experience of Rice administrators really showed when it came time to house, feed and protect students while Hurricane Ike raged.

”I feel like my part of it was very small,” said Paula Sanders, dean of graduate and postdoctoral studies, whose students live off-campus but were sheltered at Rice Memorial Center and Janice and Robert McNair Hall. ”I was the site manager, but the vast majority of the work was done by others.”

During Hurricane Ike, students were housed and fed in the campus serveries. Photo by Matt Feaga

At peak, she said, the primary shelter at McNair held 225 graduate students, along with several families, including three infants.

”Students brought pillows and sleeping bags, and a few even brought air mattresses,” she said. ”We had one area of the shelter set up specifically for families and as a quiet room for sleeping.”

For others, there was CNN, card games, board games, the Internet, lots of conversation and a ”huge pile of DVDs — all family-oriented — that one student brought in,” said Sanders.

She said people were allowed to leave the shelters only after the Crisis Management Team gave its approval Saturday morning, but they remained open until midday Monday.

”There was a point at which I couldn’t tell you which day it was,” she recalled. ”We didn’t allow anyone to go back to Morningside or the Resident Graduate Apartments until we assessed the properties to make sure they were structurally intact and had sufficient water for the sprinkler systems.”

Even after students returned to their apartments, some were posted on a mandatory fire watch in both buildings, which will continue until electricity is restored.

Sanders noted the superior work by Rice crews to keep students safe, including the custodial staff, police department and graduate housing manager Abeer Ali Mustafa, as well as Pat Dwyer of Facilities, Engineering and Planning, who oversaw the secondary shelter at the student center, and grad student Deian Tabakov, the resident associate at Morningside Apartments.

”I thought there were students who felt taking care of the building was somebody else’s responsibility, and we had to keep telling them that wasn’t the case,” said Tabakov, a 6-foot-3-inch computer science major whom Sanders described as having ”a commanding presence.”

”There were very strict rules about eating inside the shelter, and that was constantly broken,” said Tabakov. ”And sometimes students were walking in the hallways during the evacuation period. I think they were tempted to open the door to peek at the wind — I know I was. But if they had, the door could have blown off, and we would have been in trouble.”

Sanders was particularly grateful for having Barbara White Bryson, associate vice president for Facilities, Engineering and Planning, a phone call away. ”Whenever we had a problem with water pressure or electricity, we called Barbara, and she got us help, often in high winds and hazardous conditions,” she said.

Students passed the time by playing cards and board games. Photo by Matt Feaga

She also singled out Rice food services and its success in feeding those who sheltered on campus for three days, both at McNair and the RMC and at the colleges. Mark Ditman, associate vice president for Housing and Dining, and David McDonald, director of residential dining, planned well for just such an emergency.

”I think it was an exceptional effort all around,” Ditman said. ”It’s been a lot of work, but it hasn’t been unpleasant. You develop some bonds and relationships you wouldn’t under other circumstances.

”I think my favorite moment was the little meal we had for the dining emergency responders in the Cohen House before the storm hit. We thought, if this is going to be our last meal, let’s make it a good one!”

Preparations for Ike were extensive. ”We had 25,000 bottles of water in the basements of the North and South serveries, and all the things we needed for MREs (meals ready to eat),” McDonald said. ”We had peanut butter and jelly, fruit, granola bars and bread, and before the storm on Friday night we handed out MRE units for Saturday breakfast and lunch and asked the students to do the preparation. It kept them busy and was a good mental exercise.”

As it turned out, he said, cooks were able to prepare a hot lunch Saturday and a full dinner Saturday night. ”From that point on, it was three meals a day. The only issue was the weak water pressure,” McDonald said. “We had an awful lot of pots and pans to wash by the time it returned to normal on Monday.”

As a backup, McDonald said two trailers full of nonperishable food were delivered to Rice before the storm Friday, along with a backup supply of bottled water.

He said the housing and dining staff prepared 2,500 meals per meal period ”with maybe a quarter of our staff, or less. But students got involved and helped us cook, and we had a great time doing that.”

In fact, Sanders said, students got into the spirit of the moment and volunteered to take on many jobs. ”They helped cook, they made MREs for each other and for distribution to the cleanup crews all over campus, and checked people in and out of the shelter,” she said.

”This was just a huge team effort.”


About Mike Williams

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