Day of the Deluge

January 8, 2013 | CUNY Matters, The University

Fine-tuned readiness and response plans prepare the University for virtually any emergency— even an unprecedented superstorm and its aftermath.

At 3 a.m. on Oct. 30, G. Scott Anderson looked out a window of Borough of Manhattan Community College and saw the Hudson River churning and swelling just 100 feet away. It was only minutes later, in the first dark hour of the assault of Superstorm Sandy, that the suddenly ferocious river came surging across the West Side Highway, heading straight for BMCC’s four-block-long building on West Street.

Executive Vice Chancellor Allan Dobrin inspects damage from Hurricane Sandy at Kingsborough Community College. At right, Sandy uprooted dozens of trees on the campus.

“We saw the water cross the highway and come at us in one motion,” recalls Anderson, BMCC’s vice president. “The first onslaught took out all our cars, and it just kept rising and getting closer until it was just us and the river.”

The building’s staff had worked round-the-clock for five days, girding for the floodwaters with sandbags, plastic sheeting and miles of duct tape — “as if we put the entire western face of the building in a giant fishbowl,” Anderson says. But it wasn’t enough — the water slamming the building, seeping through the seams of windows and doors until the college was three feet under water.

Anderson used his cellphone to call CUNY Executive Vice Chancellor Allan Dobrin.  “I just lost BMCC,” he told Dobrin.  “We’re in the river.” And in the dark. As he recalls, “It was pitch-black, eerie, almost like a post-apocalyptic movie.”

Grim as it was in the moment, Anderson’s call marked the beginning of a remarkably agile response by the University and many of its campuses to a storm of unprecedented destruction and disarray. In BMCC’s case, painstaking preparation prior to the storm and a well-planned and organized effort in the aftermath allowed the college to reopen a week later — the same day as campuses far less impacted.

In fact, University officials and campus emergency managers say the storm’s consequences would have been far worse, in big and small ways, if not for the University’s heightened focus the last few years on its response to emergencies of all kinds. Whether it is a violent storm or a violent student, a chemical spill in a science lab, an attack on the University’s computer security or a threat of swine flu, CUNY has put in place a meticulous, highly collaborative system to minimize the many threats to health, safety and smooth operation that any large university in the modern world might face on any given day.

Led by Dobrin and Howard Apsan, director of environmental health, safety and risk management, campus operations managers have created a University-wide culture that embraces the high value of being ready for anything. “The one thing you can be sure of is you’re going to have emergencies,” says Dobrin. “You just don’t know what they’re going to be. So it’s very important to have processes in place that cover everything you can imagine, and to make constant improvements.”

Dobrin and Apsan preside over meetings each month where health, safety and operations managers from every campus gather to share information, experiences and lessons learned. One of the meetings is devoted to a post-mortem of a recent event — “the crisis of the month,” as Dobrin puts it. “If there was a fire or an explosion or someone with a gun, we bring in the key people and say, ‘Okay, tell us what happened, take us through it step-by-step from the moment you heard about it.’ No matter how well they handled it, there’s always something you can do better and lessons to be shared with the CUNY community.”

Sometimes experts from police agencies or counterparts from other universities are invited in to discuss their own experiences and best practices. It’s part of an overall approach that preaches the importance of developing and maintaining relationships with agencies and people — from the local police precinct commander to contractors and suppliers — who can become instantly vital in an emergency.

Sandy uprooted dozens of trees on the campus.

Once or twice a year, CUNY brings people together for an exercise in What If: day-long “table-top exercises,” in which a specific crisis is simulated and managers practice their responses to layers of possible scenarios, with experts evaluating their actions. Most recently, the scenario was a complete and mysterious loss of Internet and phone connection at Lehman College that lasts three days, extends to York College and includes a scene of angry students at the registrar’s office.

Apsan’s job is as close to 24/7 as it gets. He is in the loop on every sort of incident or mishap on every campus, and spends much of his time on the go, visiting campuses and meeting with their safety and emergency managers. When something major happens — such as last year’s shooting outside the Empire State Building, across the street from the Graduate Center — Apsan is there.

“We have half a million people we have to be concerned about,” he says, “and there’s no end to what can possibly happen on any campus on any given day. What’s the line from ‘The Hunger Games’? ‘May the odds be ever in your favor.’ We try to improve our odds by getting people to think about these hazards in an organized way to avoid them and, if they do happen, to minimize the effects.”

“The breadth of issues is incredible,” says Robert Santos, City College’s vice president for campus planning and facilities management. “Whether it’s health, safety, environmental or business continuity, every challenge has a set of reactions that are distinct but overlapping. Howard is uncanny in how he blends them and in the people he brings in. He always seems to be ahead of the curve.”

It plays out in many unseen ways. The safety and integrity of oil tanks, for instance, is a prime concern, especially on campuses with older buildings. Apsan’s office instituted a peer-review approach to ensure that every college is meeting government regulations. “We used to go through the checklist on our own and we were good,” says Peter Jayasekara, environmental, health and safety officer at LaGuardia Community College. “Now we do internal audits on a regular basis where a team from one campus will go with Howard’s office to another campus.”

Some might think the University’s size would make it unwieldy when it comes to emergency management, a challenge to the kind of “integrated university” that has become part of the fabric under Chancellor Matthew Goldstein. But Dobrin sees it differently. “Compare us to SUNY. All our campuses are close together so we have the opportunity to work together, moving assets and marshaling resources. We have a communications system that no other university system in the United States has: A number anyone can call from any campus in any situation and the right person will be alerted.”

The response to Superstorm Sandy in late October was considered by many a triumph of just that sort of unity and collaboration across the boroughs. “What we were facing the morning after the storm was three campuses underwater and 10 that were turned into city shelters,” said Dobrin, who is both executive vice chancellor and chief operating officer. “I told everyone, ‘This is going to be a marathon.’ ”

Indeed, dealing with the aftermath of a storm that canceled the actual marathon meant weeks of grinding 16- and 20-hour days for hundreds of administrators, facilities managers, electricians, plumbers and maintenance workers on the campuses hardest hit. Many put CUNY first, volunteering to stay as the storm approached the  waterfront campuses — BMCC and Hunter College’s Brookdale campus in Lower Manhattan and Kingsborough Community College on Coney Island — and working in the dark when the floodwaters came.

Uptown and inland, meanwhile, staffs at 10 colleges quickly transformed  gymnasiums and dining halls into emergency shelters, rolling hundreds of cots into place and setting up makeshift kitchens and infirmaries with supplies from the city’s Office of Emergency Management. The University provided refuge to nearly a third of the 9,000 people who used the city’s emergency shelters after the storm.

“What we learned from [2011 Tropical Storm] Irene was that we needed to be in charge of the shelters, instead of the city sending people in to run them as they did last time. We said, ‘These are our campuses, we know them, there has to be a CUNY person with ultimate authority.’ They agreed to that, and it worked very well for us. Everything at the shelters was pre-positioned—food, medical supplies, all the cots were waiting when people came in,” Dobrin said.

In all, the University took in 2,700 displaced city residents, including 1,000 from hospitals and nursing homes — and, for one night, guests of the Parker Meridien hotel who were evacuated when a construction crane snapped and dangled 70 stories above West 57th Street. They were bused to the nearest city emergency shelter — the Nat Holman Gym at City College. Some of the 10 shelters were still running when classes resumed a week later; the last of the displaced didn’t go home until the Thanksgiving weekend a month later.

“I think we got through it wonderfully,” Dobrin says. “We’re an educational institution, and for campuses to go weeks running hospitals and homeless shelters at the same time was very taxing.” York College alone took in nearly 1,000 people, including many who needed medical care or were mentally disabled. “There were remarkable heroes, many working 20 hours a day. We got students back in classrooms; even the campuses that were underwater didn’t miss much.”

East 80th Street was the central command but Dobrin and Apsan each also visited several campuses a day in the week after the storm. They were struck not only by the dedication of the staffs to their own campuses, but to helping others. “We were moving clothing from one place to another to get to Kingsborough,” Dobrin says. “At one point Hunter asked if they could get 45 volunteers for the next day — engineers and plumbers to help get Brookdale back. And people really rose to the occasion. “You saw the absolute best of the integrated university.  If this were 10 years ago it would have been chaos.”

There may be no better a case in point than BMCC. “We prepared our building for five days round-the-clock,” says college vice president Anderson, “but when I made that call to Allan I thought it had made no difference. We got socked by the surge coming across the highway and it took out the basement and first floor. But what I didn’t realize yet was that our precautions held it off enough to prevent sustained flooding. The plastic created a fishbowl around the western face of the building, and that saved us.”

The wet-vacs and water pumps came out when the river receded, and in the days that followed BMCC was the beneficiary of many helping hands. “We had emergency contractors on call, and whatever we needed our colleagues were there. That’s where the University shines. We needed food and water and cots, and we got them from John Jay and Hunter when they were in the middle of their own emergencies.  At one point I said we were running low on fuel for our emergency generator. They had a truck here in three hours.”