Colleges, Hurricanes and Trauma



Colleges, like people, have personalities. Some are welcoming, others reserved. Some are straight-laced, others informal. Some are prone to drama, others unflappable.

So it should come as no surprise that colleges can experience trauma. Last week, in fact, the presidents of other area colleges and I concluded that our institutions were suffering from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The cause? Hurricane Irma.

At New College, the symptoms manifest themselves as a sense of dislocation. Due to the school closure, we just had our first regular faculty meeting this past Wednesday, and we had to postpone our opening annual trustee meeting. It seems as if classes have just started. Yet we are in the midst of midterm exams, and our mid-semester break begins Monday. Faculty members and students are working long hours to make up lost class time.

Irma touched everyone. Many students, and some staff and faculty, fled ahead of the storm. Some students arrived home on the east coast of Florida, only to be sent back by their parents. They joined others sheltering on campus, uncertain what the storm would bring. I saw this first hand, as I and much of the college’s leadership team spent the night on campus as Irma passed through. Events forced each community member to make potentially life-altering choices with uncertain outcomes.

For me, the nadir was a discussion on the Thursday morning following the storm. The power was out, and fuel for the generator of the chiller plant that New College shares with Florida State University’s Ringling museum was running low. The fuel suppliers with whom Ringling and New College had contracted were unreachable. To conserve fuel, should we cut off air and humidity control to one or more of the galleries in the Ringling housing irreplaceable 18th-century paintings? Or should we cut power to New College’s marine laboratory letting the sea and ocean animals it housed die? With two hours of fuel left, we were spared the awful choice. A truck full of diesel fuel from University of South Florida’s Tampa campus arrived to fill the generators. It was a reminder of how much we depend on one another.

As late as 2am on Saturday, Sept. 9, Irma was a Category 5 hurricane, with a forecasted track going up Florida’s west coast, the eye perhaps over the warm Gulf water just off the shore. Had Irma not grazed Cuba, had it not wobbled and started to get disorganized as it crossed Marco Island, had it not veered east of Sarasota, we might still be without power. Lest we doubt this, 11 days later, Puerto Rico got what was forecast for Florida, and almost 90 percent of the island is still without power. For a few hours, Maria completely obscured Puerto Rico. Irma, even bigger, was forecast to cover Florida from west to east as it made its way up the state. Sarasota-Bradenton and Tampa Bay would likely have been devastated.

Blind chance alone, not anything we did, saved us.

Time heals. So does action. For New College, institutional healing will require that we reach out and help those at other institutions, in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and elsewhere in the Caribbean, which are in the midst of suffering what we were spared. As a small gesture, but one that demonstrates our concern, we will do as Gov. Scott suggests and waive out-of-state fees to give students from Puerto Rico the opportunity to come to New College until their home institutions get on their feet. We will try to extend other aid. We cannot escape the possibility of a direct hit by a major hurricane, but we can help make all of us more resilient by helping one another.

Donal O’Shea is president of New College of Florida.

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