Fairfield and the community were hit hard by the tropical storm, but the campus pulled together

Fairfield and the community were hit hard by the tropical storm, but the campus pulled together

by Nina M. Riccio, M.A.’09

To the fortunate few, October’s Tropical Storm Sandy meant a few days without electricity.

But for so many others — especially those closest to the shore — the storm’s destruction was worse than that of the legendary Hurricane of 1938.

Six homes in Fairfield washed into the sea, hundreds more were rendered temporarily uninhabitable, tangles of downed trees blocked roads, and residents were left mucking sand and sewage out of their living rooms for weeks after it was over.

In the days after the storm, students, faculty, and most of the staff had a few days off, while the campus was held together by a relatively small group of people who made sure roads were cleared, meals were served, and displaced students had a bed each night.

“We dodged a big one,” admitted Peter Crowley, director of Facilities Management at the University. “We had no flooding or water damage, and thanks to the co-gen plant,” — the University’s own power generating unit — “most of the campus had power.”

It wasn’t just good luck. Because there was plenty of warning for Sandy, Facilities Management kicked into high gear in the days before, removing banners from light poles and windscreens on the tennis courts, emptying dumpsters, and flipping over benches so they wouldn’t become projectiles.

“We installed additional drains for areas that typically flood. And we distributed trucks with chainsaws and other equipment all over campus,” says Crowley.

On the downside, the University lost 22 trees, some roof tiles and light poles, and one student’s car ended up under a fallen tree.

Classes were suspended for Monday and Tuesday on Oct. 29 and 30, and later extended for a full week, and students living on campus were advised the weekend before to go home if feasible.

When the town called for a mandatory evacuation of the beach on Sunday, the 300 seniors living in rentals packed their bags and headed for higher ground. To accommodate them, the University was stocked with new mattresses, and student lounges in all the dorms were transformed into makeshift bedrooms, many of them housing 6-8 students each.

The storm reached its peak on Monday evening, and the beach was hit with three high tide cycles before it petered out, leaving its mark on just about every home as far as a half a mile inland.

On campus, Don Elwell of Facilities Management was outside during the storm’s peak, clearing the main roads of downed trees with a backhoe and chainsaw. “The main arteries have to be cleared in case there’s a need for emergency vehicles. Despite the risk, it’s just not something you can leave until morning,” explained David Frassinelli, associate vice-president for Facilities Management.

“The officers ran their tails off that night,” added Frank Ficko, associate director of Public Safety. Besides monitoring the campus, “our Department of Public Safety is licensed as first responders for the Town of Fairfield, so we assisted in closing off portions of North Benson Road due to fallen trees and wires. Campus power lines are underground, but that’s not the case with the town. As you can imagine, all of the town’s resources were stretched to the limit for days following.”

At his home in Stratford, Bill Romatzick, manager of Energy Controls and Plant Systems, was called when the co-gen plant wouldn’t start. A drive that normally takes him 20 minutes stretched to two and a half hours that night.

When the storm finally ran its course about 12 hours after it began, it was clear that “many of the homes that our students rented [at the beach] would be uninhabitable for months,” said Karen Donoghue, dean of students. Even the Seagrape, the landmark bar that has survived generations of Fairfield students couldn’t survive Sandy. It closed for two months due to flooding.

A group of Sandy volunteers organized by the Center for Faith and Public Life cleaned up at Rockaway Beach in N.Y.

A group of Sandy volunteers organized by the Center for Faith and Public Life cleaned up at Rockaway Beach in N.Y.

Adding to the housing issue was the fact that the 464 students living in the townhouses — the only major structures on campus not connected to the University’s co-gen plant — had to be evacuated. Though the buildings sustained minimal structural damage, they had no lights, sprinklers or heat, so they had to be closed each night for a week until the town’s electric grid was up and running. “Over 200 of these students were accommodated on campus, and others found their own temporary housing,” said Donoghue. “But we also reached out to faculty, staff, and our alumni community, asking if anyone would be willing to house a couple of students for an indefinite amount of time.”

“Within days, we had this overwhelming response from the community,” said Donoghue, noting that 178 people stepped forward to offer an extra bedroom or two, even a guesthouse.

Among them was President Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J., who opened his home to four seniors whose beach house was flooded. “The National Guard kept everyone off the beach for most of the week, but when we finally got down there you could see that the water had been up to the doorknobs,” said Andrew Cunningham ’13, an accounting major from Massachusetts who was one of the four, with Paul Rosen ’13, Kevin Bachman ’13, and Tyler Haviland ’13. “The walls, staircase, and flooring all had to be ripped out, and the appliances were ruined.” Fortunately, Cunningham said, “our landlord has been great,” and the four were able to move back in mid-January.

While the town struggled to recover, the University became an oasis. The RecPlex opened its showers to town residents, employees, and first responders, many of whom were working long hours and couldn’t get to their own homes. Beds and meals were also made available for the town’s emergency personnel.

Dr. Lisa Mainiero’s business class raised money for Sandy relief.

Dr. Lisa Mainiero’s business class raised money for Sandy relief.

When three local women rallied the town for a beach clean-up day, Steve Parker ’10 both working in the Admissions Office, eagerly organized a contingent of more than 130 University students, alumni, and friends, many traveling a distance to help put “their beach community” back together. Equipped with rakes, shovels, garbage bags, and gloves, teams of volunteers fanned out and were assigned to homes to shovel sand, clear debris, and gut interiors.

In the days after the storm, it became clear that communities in New York and New Jersey suffered a great deal more devastation than Fairfield. To help alleviate the overwhelming needs of neighborhoods in the Rockaways (N.Y.), The Center for Faith and Pubic Life’s JUHAN (Jesuit Universities Humanitarian Action Network) led a dozen students and staff members to the area, where teams spent the day ripping out water-soaked floors and wallboards and shoveling several tons of sand out of homes. The effort continues monthly throughout the spring semester.

Using the storm and its aftermath as a learning experience comes naturally to Fairfield professors. “I tell my classes that, in times of crisis, a true leader takes action,” said Dr. Lisa Mainiero, who teaches classes in management and leadership in the Dolan School of Business. “I’m proud to say my students ran with it, organizing bake sales, coat drives, and candy cane sales. They raised over $1,000 and distributed it to several agencies, and they delivered about 50 coats to an agency in Staten Island. Even more importantly, they showed they can create a leadership platform by developing a vision of who they wanted to help and in what way.”

New Media students used their cameras to document a different story: that of the community coming together over the beach clean up. Says Rachel Greco ’13 in A Sandy Silver Lining, “Sandy may have brought sadness, destruction, and displacement, but she strengthened the town of Fairfield.”

To view A Sandy Silver Lining, go to www.fairfield.edu/sandysilverlining.