Owls in the Storm
People and institutions often are defined by how they respond to crises.
For more than four years, I have had the privilege of being part of the extraordinary Rice community, and my pride in this university has never been greater than during the week after Hurricane Ike as I watched my colleagues and associates respond to both the threat and the aftermath of the storm.Baker Institute Director Ed Djerejian’s important new book is titled “Danger and Opportunity.” He takes this title from the Chinese word for crisis, which is composed of two characters — one derived from the character for danger and the other from the character for opportunity. In short, the word embodies the idea that in each crisis lurks both danger and opportunity.
In the days before Ike and even during the storm, the Rice Crisis Management Team met regularly
via conference call to review every aspect of preparation, action and response.
That has surely been our experience with Hurricane Ike. Make no mistake: For Houston and certainly for Galveston and nearby shore areas, this was a once-in-a-quarter-century hurricane (we certainly hope!) in terms of its strength, its size and directness of the hit. The last hurricane that was similar to Ike, both in force and location, was Alicia in 1983.
Literally years of preparation at Rice paid off. In 2005, we were fully prepared for Hurricane Rita, which, in the last day or so before it made landfall, veered northward and largely spared the Houston area from serious damage. We learned a lot from that experience and implemented changes to our procedures.
In the days before Ike and even during the storm, the Rice Crisis Management Team met regularly via conference call to review every aspect of preparation, action and response. We went into high gear on Thursday and Friday to batten down the campus, set up special shelters for our students and lay in food and water supplies. Ping and I walked the campus to meet with students, who were cheerful and patient as they faced the prospect of being crowded into shelters for the night. Throughout, we communicated with parents and others through e-mail and postings on the Web, in part to counteract the hyperbolic reports in the news media.
The response of our community to all this was nothing less than amazing – a case study in both resilience and compassion. Everyone pitched in.
Once the winds subsided on Saturday, we immediately began to assess damage, clean up and make repairs to prepare for a speedy return to normalcy. This was especially important in light of the large number of students living on our campus who were eager to return to classes.
While recognizing that the campus had been spared major damage, we also understood that much of the city had suffered substantial losses, and millions of people were without power. Water pressure throughout the city had dropped, creating sanitary threats. Trees were down, gasoline was in short supply and transportation was challenging.
The response of our community to all this was nothing less than amazing — a case study in both resilience and compassion. Everyone pitched in. Our students stood side by side with our Facilities, Engineering and Planning crews to clean up tree debris that blanketed the roads and blocked walkways on campus. Our construction crews redeployed to open up roadways and repair water and wind damage. Our Housing and Dining staff found and prepared fresh food for people sheltered on campus.
While we got Rice back on its feet in just a few days, many in our community — students, faculty and staff — still lived under difficult conditions. We did our best to accommodate those circumstances, from canceling tests to setting up day camps for children whose schools remained closed. We created emergency loans for staff members in need, handed out ice and opened up showers and laundry facilities on campus. If people needed time to deal with repairs, flexibility was the rule.
We also turned our attention to our battered city. Volunteers began lining up to help almost before the storm had subsided. Hundreds of students and staff helped sort and pack food at the Houston Food Bank and organized collections of supplies and money. They joined crews cleaning up parks and hard-hit neighborhoods. Several members of our basketball team helped remove debris in Galveston, which was seriously damaged by the storm.
When hospitals in the Texas Medical Center lost their helicopter landing pads, we opened up our bicycle track in the parking lot of Rice Stadium to allow them to land. Our neighbors clapped and cheered as the helicopters released their injured passengers and ambulances whisked them away for care. We also delayed the opening of the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen for a week so disaster-assistance medical teams could use it as a triage center to handle overflow injuries from hospital emergency rooms.
And, throughout, we never forgot that we are a community of learning and research. As the storm approached, Jerry Dickens, professor of earth science and master of Martel College, gave a lecture to the students on hurricanes. Before and after the storm, Rice faculty members served as resources for the media and others on a range of issues regarding the weather and related topics.
Most of all, Rice emerged from Ike with a reaffirmation that we are a community that cares: We care about each other, we care about our neighbors and we care about the world beyond. That is a big part of what makes Rice so special, and what makes the work we do so important.