Precautions taken for Florence include class cancellations, campus shutdown as College evacuates

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An early track of Hurricane Florence threatened Virginia Sept. 10. COURTESY PHOTO / WYDAILY, NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE

While the path of Hurricane Florence shifted away from Williamsburg once classes were cancelled after 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 11, students, faculty and staff of the College of William and Mary faced delays extending into Sept. 16 which affected academic, work and operational procedures.

According to Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration Sam Jones, the emergency management team started watching Florence’s path the previous week. After recognizing its threat to the Hampton Roads area, they met Monday, Sept. 10, to develop a plan of action.

“Recognizing that it would take some time for students to leave ahead of the storm, the President and Provost approved the EMT recommendation to end classes mid-day Tuesday with students being out of the dorms by Wednesday at 5,” Jones said in an email. “All of this was student safety driven based on the then current weather forecast and the likelihood the campus could lose power.”

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam issued a state of emergency Sept. 8 and then ordered a mandatory evacuation of coastal, flood-prone areas of Zone A Sept. 10. Zone A included areas of Hampton Roads and the Eastern Shore. Northam also selected the College’s McCormack-Nagelsen Tennis Center as a state-run evacuation site for evacuees from Zone A. The evacuation order for Zone A was lifted by Northam Sept. 14, and, after consulting with EMT, College President Katherine Rowe and Provost Michael Halleran decided to allow classes to resume Monday, with residence halls opening at noon Sunday, Sept. 16.

To facilitate students’ return, Jones said that College officials worked with a bus company to shuttle students to and from Northern Virginia. In an email sent to faculty members, Halleran asked for professors to be accommodating of students who are unable to return to class on time.

“Just as it took a while for our students to evacuate the campus, it will take a while for them all to return,” Halleran said in an email.  “Amtrak is overwhelmed with reservation requests and other modes of transportation are also stressed. So not all of our students will be back on campus for the resumption of classes. I ask, as always in such circumstances, that you exercise your good judgment in accommodating these students, especially in relation to tests, due dates for projects, etc.”

“Just as it took a while for our students to evacuate the campus, it will take a while for them all to return,” Halleran said in an email.  “Amtrak is overwhelmed with reservation requests and other modes of transportation are also stressed. So not all of our students will be back on campus for the resumption of classes. I ask, as always in such circumstances, that you exercise your good judgment in accommodating these students, especially in relation to tests, due dates for projects, etc.”

According to Halleran, no changes will be made to the academic calendar for lost days of instruction, though changes may become more likely if another hurricane threatens the College this fall.

The evacuation order also caused some concern for the College’s hourly workers, as evidenced by a petition that arose Sept. 15 on Change.org. But Chief Human Resources Officer John Poma said that while hourly workers at the College were unable to work their scheduled hours, the impact to them will not be significant.

“… [B]ecause hourly workers are limited by law to no more than 1,500 hours from May 1st to April 30th, and because we typically have to limit hours for many hourly employees in April, we anticipate minimal to no effect,” Poma said in an email. “The hours should be relatively easy to make up. It’s never an ideal situation to close but we have to make those decisions in the best interest of the safety of campus. When they are hired, hourly workers understand that their schedules may change from week-to-week but they will have an opportunity to make up the hours.”

According to Poma, the College retains 143 hourly workers, and 12 work in facilities management. Poma said that the College’s overtime-eligible facilities employees are salaried non-exempt.

Resident District Manager of William and Mary Dining Services Jason Aupied said that 80 percent of dining services employees are full time.

“During the closure for Hurricane Florence, Dining Services’ frontline employees missed 13 hours on average over the 4 days,” Aupied said in an email.  “Full time employees were able to use vacation time to cover missed hours if they chose to.”

While the College ceased to operate temporarily, Williamsburg was unscathed by Florence. The City of Williamsburg did not need to activate its Emergency Operations Center, according to a press release.

As the original forecast of 5 to 15 inches of rain changed, impacts to Williamsburg became minimal. The City still conducted routine preparations.

In anticipation of the hurricane, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam opened two state-managed shelters in the Coastal Virginia area, one at Christopher Newport University in Newport News and the other on the campus of the College.

The shelter on campus opened Oct. 11 and was located at the McCormack-Nagelsen Tennis Center at 705 South Henry Street, near the Marshall-Wythe School of Law. It was open to anyone living in mandatory evacuation zones.

Although the shelter was prepared to house up to 1,500 people, it ended up only being used by about two people, according to director of external affairs at the Virginia Department of Emergency Management Jeff Caldwell.

“It was not heavily utilized, about a handful of folks,” Caldwell said.

Caldwell said that the shelter location at the College was never intended to be a primary shelter option, but rather was meant to support local shelters in the event that they reached capacity.

However, the hurricane trajectory prevented that from happening locally.

“The storm turned south and spared Virginia of the brunt of the impact,” Caldwell said.

While the VDEM prepared for the option of sheltering people from other states impacted by the hurricane, and remained open until the storm made landfall, the people who ended up using the shelter came from the Coastal Virginia area.

Interim City Manager Andrew Trivette said that he appreciated the low impact to the City of Williamsburg and surrounding areas as well as the readiness of the residents.

“I am thankful for the way City staff, residents and businesses reacted to storm forecasts and warnings,” Trivette said in a statement. “Despite not being greatly impacted the threat was serious and the community reacted appropriately. That is precisely what is needed to get a community through serious weather events.”

“I am thankful for the way City staff, residents and businesses reacted to storm forecasts and warnings,” Trivette said in a statement. “Despite not being greatly impacted the threat was serious and the community reacted appropriately. That is precisely what is needed to get a community through serious weather events.”

— News Editor Leonor Grave also contributed to this article.