The first week of classes was cut short when Williamsburg found itself in the path of Hurricane Irene. Last Friday, students received an earlier-than-expected break when asked to evacuate campus until Tuesday.
Hurricane Irene was a Category 3 storm with winds up to 120 miles per hour when it hit Williamsburg.
“When the moment of truth finally came it wasn’t a tough decision, because there was a great risk of loss of electric power,” said College of William and Mary President Taylor Reveley. “If we can’t light the dorms or feed the students then [the students] go hungry and become mutinous. We can’t take that chance. The only saving grace is that it didn’t happen with freshman move-in.”
The Emergency Management Team, in consultation with the president and provost, decided to reschedule Convocation for this Friday and to cancel all campus events Friday through Monday. Residence halls re-opened Tuesday at noon.
“The track of the storm shifted west and intensified overnight and now there is a high likelihood that the Williamsburg region will see significant rain, wind and, more important, loss of electric power and continuing over the weekend,” said Sam Jones, Vice Chair of the Emergency Management Team, in a campus-wide email.
Hurricane Irene was the latest in a series of natural disasters to hit Virginia. It was preceded by an August fire in the Great Dismal Swamp, as well as a 5.8 magnitude earthquake Aug. 23 in Mineral, Va.
“I am not pleased at the great trilogy of the Great Dismal Swamp fumes followed by the tornado, followed by the earthquake, followed by the hurricane,” Reveley said. “What’s next? The great mutant locust?”
Oleta Coach Lines stepped up to shuttle students to Northern Virginia after the evacuation went into effect. For $25 per person, Oleta drove students to the Springfield Metro station in Fairfax, Va.
Howard Smith described his company’s relationship with the College as one rooted in devotion.
“[The hurricane] opened up a door we had been trying to open for 15 years,” Smith said. “It took this disaster for people to realize our service and our dedication to William and Mary … It was because of William and Mary that Oleta was founded in 1986 … I taught my son to take care of William and Mary first. It’s been here for over 300 years, they’re not going anywhere. Other clients, they come and go. In the long run, William and Mary should always come first.”
For international students evacuating for the hurricane, the Wendy and Emery Reves Center for International Studies provided evacuation assistance.
“Anticipating a possible evacuation, we readied our internal protocols and drafted communications to our international students and host families,” said Steve Sechrist, director of international students, scholars, and programs, in an email. “We knew that 232, or almost half of our international students, were living on campus and we had to be prepared to help them. To international students living off campus and to our Global Friends Host Family community members, we explained the situation and asked for volunteers who would be willing to host a stranded international student for the weekend.”
International students who needed housing over the weekend found it with host families and graduate students living off campus.
“Initially we had 42 international students who indicated a need for assistance,” Sechrist said in an email. “That number quickly dwindled as they received offers to go home with roommates, hallmates, and friends. This is what we had hoped would happen as it is the best option in terms of safety and comfort.”
International student associations such as the Chinese Student Organization also offered spaces to students, Sechrist said. Some students decided to stay in local motels and others were placed with host families and graduate students living off campus. All in all, every international student had somewhere to stay for the duration of the evacuation.
“We are looking forward to hearing feedback from the students we worked with, and from everyone in the William and Mary community, about ways we can further improve our response for international students in emergency situation like this,” said Steve Hanson, vice provost for international affairs, in an email. “We want all of our international students to feel fully welcome and supported here at William and Mary, and being able to help out in a time of crisis is an important way to convey that support.”
Sechrist was impressed by the number of people in Williamsburg willing to host students who needed somewhere to stay.
“[The hurricane] certainly provided an unforgettable start to the year,” he said. “From our perspective, seeing our College community (including our host families) open their homes to international students was really remarkable. It was a true testament to the generosity and warmth of our community.”
Associate News Editor Ariel Cohen contributed to this report.