posted 2011-09-07 13:00:40

Hurricane Irene Forces Evacuation of Hunter Dorms

Flooding along 12th Ave between 135th and 139th / Photo courtesy of Dave Bledsoe, FreeVerse Photography
Flooding along 12th Ave between 135th and 139th / Dave Bledsoe, FreeVerse Photography
John Bolger

News and Features Editor

New York City fell into a state of disorder as Hurricane Irene made its approach late last month.  Mayor Michael Bloomburg called for the complete shutdown of the MTA as well as the evacuation of roughly 370,000 residents in the city's low-lying areas – two unprecedented actions.  Hunter's Brookdale dormitories, located inside a zone A flood area, were no exception to the evacuation order.

According to Len Zinnanti, Chief Operating Officer of Hunter College, the NYPD notified the college around mid-day the Friday before the storm that the 600 or so students of the Brookdale dormitories would need to evacuate.  Zinnanti said that most students had left Brookdale by Friday night and that only between 10 and 15 students remained by Saturday morning.

Although all classes CUNY-wide were cancelled the weekend of the storm, Hunter's main campus remained open to serve as an evacuation center.  According to Zinnanti, around 200 people took refuge in Hunter College's gym while an additional 50 or so Brookdale students stayed in the auditorium.

The Monday following the storm saw few disruptions. None of Hunter College's campuses were significantly damaged by the storm, Zinnanti said. The Brookdale campus experienced minor flooding, with water still able to be heard sloshing at the bottom of elevators Monday afternoon.  The cafeterias at both the Brookdale and the 68th street campuses were closed and classes before 2:30 PM were cancelled.  The subway entrance to the main campus also remained closed the entire week following the storm because crates of emergency supplies filled the basement floor.

On the morning of the evacuation August 24 Manhattan was in a strange state of disarray. The scene around the 25th street campus was one of a ghost town.  Businesses were closed and the streets were barren save for the occasional wanderer, making haste to leave the flood zone ahead of the MTA shutdown.

During the final hour before the 10:00 AM evacuation deadline Saturday, the last few students to leave said that they did not think the hurricane would be as powerful as the mayor or the media predicted.  However most did say that they thought the mandatory evacuation was a smart precaution.

Montse Rrat, 24, a Political Science major from Chile, evacuated late that morning to her friend's house in Park Slope, Brooklyn.  She said that she didn't think serious damage would come to the city nor to her belongings in the Brookdale campus.  “I guess it's probably a little bit more exaggerated than it should be,” she said.  “Unless you do something really stupid, I don't think anything is going to happen.”

Victoria Melendez, 21, majoring in English said that she was concerned enough to take the advised precautions in securing her room and that she was actively watching online storm trackers, but that she did not think the storm would inflict much damage.  “I think it will not be as bad as everyone seems to think,” she said, “but it [the evacuation] is a good step at precaution in case something does happen.”  She added that she was thankful that she hadn’t bought any of her textbooks by that time.

Unlike the rest of the students interviewed leaving Brookdale, Jessie Ulletta, 20, studying anthropology, was livid.  She repeatedly referred to the situation as “dumb” and “stupid” before saying “If it were possible to sign a waiver to stay in the dorm and read all weekend, I would have done that.”  She declined to comment further.

By Sunday afternoon students began returning to the Brookdale campus. The atmosphere of the dormitory corridors the following Monday night was jovial with smiles and laughter as students resumed their regular routines.

“People just want to get on with the start of their year,” said Daniel Solecki, 19, in the second floor lounge of the Brookdale campus.  “They want the elevators to get back working and to get to class and back to meeting new people.”

Solecki, studying art history, was unimpressed by the hurricane, calling it “wimpy.”  “I expected a lot of trees down in the courtyard, maybe a couple of broken windows and flooding up 25th street,” he said, “you just assume that zone A is going to be underwater.”

Sitting on a sofa in the third floor lounge, Tom Bolan, a 17 year-old studying English, said that he thought the media had hyped Irene and that it was “more like a hard rain storm than a hurricane.”  He said that he felt silly when he evacuated and that “everything feels like it never happened.”

Angela Pitto, 18, who hasn't declared her major, said “everyone's glad to be back.  People are just really happy to be back at their dorms and out of their house.”  She said that one of the biggest inconveniences of the hurricane was that it broke the flow of the school year.

“Obviously I missed my fourth floor buddies,” she said.  “I was sad, but I knew it was something I had to do.”

New York City was largely spared the brunt of Irene's wrath, the more south-lying eastern states sustaining the most severe damage.  Despite Irene's diminished strength by the time it reached New York, it still provided a perfect demonstration of the city's hurricane response plan – “but it would have worked a lot better if there was a real hurricane,” Solecki said.