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August 29, 2011

Engulfed by Irene

Steven R. Berryman

Al Roker and Joe Bastardi are now the media icons of America. On Saturday and Sunday, while absorbing hurricane Irene, we all hunkered-down in our safest places and watched these weather video journalist he-men flex their muscles, leaning into the wind for emphasis.


President Obama found a great photo-op sitting in the captain’s chair of the National Hurricane Command Center, and lectured FEMA. Not having a chance to catch the audio, a good caption could have been:  “Now…I’m in charge here.”


Fortunately, I’m a survivalist kinda guy, so didn’t have much prep to worry about myself. I did scribe a reminder to others in my Frederick News-Post column Friday.


Lines at Wal-Mart and Giant for toilet paper and milk were still epic. There were rumors – unfounded – that gas would run out due to emergency travels and people topping off tanks just in case. After all the hype, it all seemed boringly well orchestrated. The worst case scenarios never happened.


Saturday morning I had caught up on watching the weathermen-in-full-glory just before leaving for work at hh gregg’s. By that time it had become pretty clear that the monster CAT 3 hurricane was diffusing into watery mush, and that this would be chiefly a rain and flood and surge event; scanning my cable channels for the action at the Outer Banks, North Carolina, the media tone seemed almost depressed that their videograhpers could not shoot some real storm damage. You know, houses losing roofs, or schools floating away, that sort of thing.


Safely at work a bit later, I was surprised at just how normal the day actually was, from a retailer’s perspective. Selling laptop computers and flat screen TVs, dishwashers and cameras had a strange normalcy to it. I guess that the consumer rituals are calming to some.


Of course, in the mid-Atlantic region, we are fairly numb to major earthly events now, having just had the big Virginia quake that reverberated the same area as had Irene. Just staying hunkered – my new favorite word – was enough as events unfurled. For me, my preparation involved a trip into the path of the big tropical storm to bring son Paul home from Salisbury University.


Paul had been there to begin classes and was setting up a tiny home for the semester.


Knowing the potential for evacuation snarls in both directions, I wanted to spare everyone the unwanted road trip. Paul wanted to “man it out,” and I wanted a plan-B that I could trust, as Salisbury University rests on low land with water on two sides.


Surely there was a college campus plan for emergency stay at the popular university for allowing off-campus students to shelter in place at one of the many well-endowed brick structures. Not.


The Friday before the storm, I had the vice president of Student Affairs Dane Foust on the phone to get some reassurances to this effect; he was nice enough to return my call after his emergency meeting.


His emergency “plan” was to tell the kids to go home. He mentioned a Greyhound Bus station, but nobody could assure a seat. The plan was to ask the students in their charge to go to the local shelters in town. Does anyone else have visions of the Superdome in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina? This was their plan?


After 15 minutes of discussing, suggesting, asking, threatening, and begging this defensive bureaucrat, I hung up on him – “interim-VP” indeed.


Of course, I then spent the entire day journeying to and from Salisbury to pick up Paul and his friend. I was thoroughly disgusted with the poor planning and bad decisions of this otherwise great school. The inconvenience of their employees and insurance liability had surely ruled the day. Not much of a message to the student body!


By contrast, Towson University – where my daughter is matriculating – is located just north of Baltimore, another water-surrounded port area, also in danger. The contrast part was their response to hurricane Irene. Not only did Towson take care of its students, but it opened its doors to the international workers escaping from Ocean City. Accepting their outbound busloads was the right thing to do, in keeping with the pioneering spirit of America.


That distinction was missed entirely.


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