September 2017

New College Community Comes Together During Irma

by David Gulliver

A large tree behind Robertson Hall was uprooted by Hurricane Irma. The campus sustained significant damage from the storm.

A large tree behind Robertson Hall was uprooted by Hurricane Irma. The campus sustained significant damage from the storm.

While New College of Florida emerged largely unscathed from Hurricane Irma itself, the storm’s aftereffects resulted in significant damage to buildings and grounds, and disrupted campus life for more than a week.

Robertson Hall, which houses Admissions and Financial Aid, and Bonseigneur, which houses psychology department offices, both were damaged when a county-operated sewage lift station failed and flooded the buildings’ ground floors. Both will require expensive interior cleanup and restoration.

Robertson nearly suffered more extensive damage, when a large tree east of the building fell just alongside it. Another large tree just southeast of B Dorm also fell.

But the biggest effect of the hurricane was on the College’s academic and residential life. The storm prompted the College to close for more than a week, canceling hundreds of classes and stalling routine but essential administrative work.

The closing allowed most of New College’s approximately 850 students to leave campus and take shelter with their families or friends, some traveling hundreds of miles by car or plane.

Several alumni and parents have asked the New College Foundation to set up a fund to support the College and any students who suffered financially from the storm. You can donate to the New College Relief and Recovery Fund here.

Nearly 200 students remained on campus, and when a late shift to the storm’s predicted path suggested it might track up the Gulf of Mexico – potentially far more dangerous to the College – the administrative team opened ACE, the main academic classroom building, as a shelter.

As students sheltered in ACE and in the College’s hurricane-resistant halls, much of the College’s leadership remained on campus with them. President Don O’Shea toured ACE and other sites in the afternoon of Sunday, Sept. 10, as the storm approached. O’Shea, Provost Barbara Feldman, Dean of Student Affairs Robin Williamson, Sr. Associate Dean Mark Stier and others all spent the night on campus.

Irma crossed Sarasota County early in the morning of Monday, Sept. 11, as a Category 1 hurricane. Its eye passed about 40 miles east of the College, so the campus experienced only tropical storm-force winds. There was no structural damage to residence halls or other buildings.

That was in large measure due to the efforts of the Physical Plant department, which worked all week to clean gutters and roofs, clear stormwater access points, trim trees and sandbag and shutter vulnerable buildings like College Hall. Staff also fueled and tested generators, and moved them to vital locations.

While power remained on for almost all of the residential side of campus, it took Florida Power & Light until Sunday, Sept. 17, to restore electricity to the Bayfront campus. Generators maintained air conditioning to most residence halls and kept the power on in vital places like the Pritzker Marine Research Center and the Heiser Natural Sciences Complex, where labs house living and preserved collections.

The College is now working on restoring life as usual on campus. The provost, in consultation with the faculty, announced that the College would not cancel Fall Break to make up for lost time. Instead, professors will work with their students to arrange online work or evening or weekend classes if needed. The College’s financial offices have shifted several deadlines for fees and disbursements to accommodate students’ time away from campus.

In a post-storm message to students, faculty and staff, President O’Shea praised the community’s resilience.

“We cannot say that Hurricane Irma was, in any way, a positive experience. It disrupted far too many lives and left too much damage and destruction in its wake,” he wrote.

“What I can say, however, is that I am proud of how all of you — students, staff, faculty and the greater community - supported each other during the storm, and I’m sure you will continue to do so as New College recovers.”

© 2015 New College of Florida