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Employees see University through night of turmoil

U.Va. lost its oldest tree to Isabel last week, a massive white oak believed to be 256 years old.

Courtesy of the Daily Progress/Andrew Shurtleff
U.Va. lost its oldest tree to Isabel last week, a massive white oak believed to be 256 years old. Here, third-year student Ryan Thompson inspects the tree, which stood until last Friday between Brooks Hall and the Rotunda.

By Carol Wood

Late Thursday afternoon, Hurricane Isabel swept over the University, bringing an evening of turmoil that left the Grounds without power until early Friday morning.
At about 6 p.m., roughly an hour after much of the University lost electricity, Leonard W. Sandridge, executive vice president and chief operating officer, pulled on his U.Va. Police raingear and set out on what would be the first of several Grounds tours he would make throughout the night.

He was not alone. Hundreds of University employees worked around the clock to keep patients and students safely sheltered and well fed.

One of Sandridge’s first stops was to see how first-year students were faring in the Observatory Hill dining room. Nearing its 7 p.m. closing time, he found it still brimming with students dining by candlelight and emergency power. It was dark and steamy, but neither Sandridge nor the students seemed to mind. One worker deemed it “very crazy in here tonight.”

Sandridge talked with students and thanked workers for going the extra mile to help during the hurricane.

Like many at the University, Dining Services had gotten an early jump on planning for Isabel. Earlier in the week, Richard Kovatch, associate vice president for business operations, reported bringing in a refrigerated tractor-trailer with enough food and supplies to get through a sustained period without power. And while O-Hill was without power until midday Saturday, the meals kept coming.

Facilities Management workers assess damage to a serpentine wall and cut and clear debris.
Facilities Management workers assess damage to a serpentine wall and cut and clear debris.

Leaving the dining hall, Sandridge wheeled his Jeep Cherokee up Observatory Hill to check on Hereford College and other sites. He found Hereford lit up like a Christmas tree but roadways littered with branches. One Environmental Health & Safety truck had met its match in the shape of a fallen tree limb.

He called in the damage to his office, where Debbie Rinker and Tammy Wilkins, his administrative assistants, were staffing a makeshift command center.

Next stop was the 911 Center next to University Police headquarters on U.S. 250. Sandridge found bright lights but grim news — the city quickly was becoming impassable. “Calls about trees are coming in about every five minutes,” one emergency worker said.

It was not yet 8 p.m., and Kaye Harden, the emergency services coordinator for the area’s Emergency Operations Center, said Dominion Power already was reporting 1 million customers across the state without power.

The short drive back to Madison Hall was dark and windswept. At the flooded intersection of Ivy Road and Emmet Street, a gaggle of yellow-slickered workmen, knee-deep in water, yelped to each other as they tried to open storm drains while rain pelted them from all sides.

Sandridge received updates from Wilkins and Rinker, who had been fielding calls from the likes of Facilities Management, University Police, Housing and the Health System.

After a brief respite, Sandridge decided to head to the Medical Center. “Drive or walk?” he asked aloud. Back into the rain, he trudged across Grounds, down alongside one of the Medical Center’s massive generators humming loudly into the night.

By 9:30 p.m., the hospital was well into the fourth of what would be 11 hours of operating off its two generators.

Marge Sidebottom, director for emergency preparedness, said the Medical Center was filled and the emergency room would be kept hopping. By 5 a.m., 64 people had sought treatment, although only a handful of those were hurricane-related. Meanwhile, upstairs on maternity, eight women were in labor, and by 6 a.m., two boys and a girl would be born. In the OR, operations went on as scheduled.

While the hospital’s smooth operation was good news, it was greatly diminished by the bad. Reports that a father and son killed earlier in a car crash had just been brought to the hospital reminded everyone of Isabel’s devastating power.

At least a dozen hospital administrators gathered in the room to plan for the rest of the night.

Medical Center CEO R. Edward Howell praised the staff for “pulling together in extraordinary fashion.” Earlier he had walked the halls laden with orange Medical Center T-shirts for employees — some 30 of whom had planned to sleep over on cots — printed with the phrase “I survived Hurricane Isabel.”

Sandridge soon was headed up to the Lawn to see how Isabel was treating Jefferson’s Academical Village. A few limbs were down, but clearly not students’ spirits. Much gaiety could be heard, but not seen, there and at Mad Bowl.

With the clock pushing hard toward midnight, Sandridge discovered water rushing into Madison Hall’s basement. He and four others swept the water out into a working drain on the other side of the building, while a fifth held multiple flashlights. Within minutes, several Facilities Management crews arrived to address the overflowing drains.

By 12:15 a.m., Sandridge was back at the 911 Center, where he learned that the number of people in the state without power had risen to 1.3 million, a number that would later top out at 1.7 million.

Sandridge returned to Madison Hall, and shortly afterward Paul Norris, the University’s chief of police, and Lt. Mike Gibson briefed him on what they’d seen in their travels. Norris had his staff working 12-hour shifts, carefully monitoring the Grounds.

By 1:30 a.m., the weather had begun to settle down. With some nudging from Rinker and Wilkins, Sandridge left at 2 a.m. with a promise to return by 5.

After a fitful sleep, Rinker and Wilkins were awakened at 4:45 by bright lights and buzzing computers. Then, like clockwork, Sandridge came through the door at 5 a.m., ready to put Isabel behind him. It had been a long, difficult night, but University employees had performed admirably and he was feeling pretty good.

It was time to move forward, to make storm evaluations and assessments, and for making sure the University would be back to normal as soon as possible.

(Top left) Frank Hill of Facilities Management responds to a call as employees from the Big “O” Tree and Lawn Service remove a fallen tree between Brooks Hall and the Rotunda Friday morning. In all, U.Va. lost some 20 mature trees due to the hurricane. (Top right) Scaffolding littered the steps of the Rotunda the morning after Isabel. (Below right) Facilities Management workers assess damage to a serpentine wall and cut and clear debris. (Below left) U.Va. students and area children made the best of the soggy situation. Here, 10-year-old Madeline Heim slides headfirst into a muddy Mad Bowl.


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