UH Weathers the Storm

September 23, 2008

With winds gusting up to 92 miles per hour, Hurricane Ike barreled across the University of Houston Sept. 13, but thanks to changes implemented as a result of previous storms, the campus escaped catastrophic damages and quickly rebounded.

UH President Renu Khator also credits the campus community for the university’s rapid recovery.

“Over the past week, we have come together as a family,” Khator said. “I am grateful to many staff members who put their personal difficulties aside and helped students feel at home here by offering important services — from hot meals to laptops to safer sidewalks. They have proven that they are the backbone of this university.

“I am also thankful to our faculty members for taking their time to come and help students find an anchor during this time of crisis. They are role models, and their strength has inspired many students.”

Dave Irvin, associate vice president for plant operations, noted the importance of the measures taken after Tropical Storm Allison and hurricanes Rita and Gustav and the commitment to staff to restoring the campus.

“Many of the things we did after Allison to try to mitigate potential damages seemed to have worked, so a lot of the buildings that suffered during Allison came through this storm with no damages at all, not even water,” Irvin said.

One of those lessons was placing “a full ride-out team of about 150 people, including electricians, landscape experts, plumbers and electricians, on campus during the hurricane, which allowed us to evaluate the situation immediately,” Irvin said. “As the eye of hurricane was moving over the area, the team was assessing the damage.”

The university also enhanced its emergency preparedness by purchasing a 5,000-gallon fuel tank, increasing the number (from 40 to 45) and size of generators on campus, and adding protective barriers, submarine doors at tunnel entrances and submersible pumps.

Additionally, a day after the hurricane’s landfall, contractors hired by UH and staff members worked around the clock to prepare the campus for normal operations.

“Five grounds crews have been working from sunrise to sundown to remove damaged trees and tree limbs,” Irvin said. “All of the debris should be gone in a month, but it will take many months to figure out how we rebuild.

These efforts helped lessen the impact of Hurricane Ike, which caused an estimated $20 to $25 million in damages to UH buildings—a fraction of the recovery costs from Tropical Storm Allison in 2001—and enable the campus to reopen Sept. 16.

“The good news is that we didn’t have any damage to our mechanical, electrical, telecommunications or computing systems, which stands in stark contrast to what happened after Tropical Storm Allison, when we had more than $200 million in damages,” Irvin said.

During Hurricane Ike, 15 percent of UH’s 110 buildings sustained minor to severe damage, which includes the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture, which was closed last week. One-third of the college’s copper roof was destroyed.

“There was water on all the college’s floors, inside the walls and the ceiling tiles,” Irvin said. “Contactors worked around the clock so the college could open on Monday.”

The Campus Recreation and Wellness Center, the LeRoy and Lucile Melcher Center for Public Broadcasting and the Athletics/Alumni Center also were hit hard by Hurricane Ike. The storm ripped off portions of the buildings’ roofs.

“The Recreation and Wellness Center lost its roof membrane over its swimming and diving pool and other sections. There was a lot of water in those areas, but we’ve already placed a temporary roof on the building,” Irvin said. “At the broadcasting center, the water went into the TV studios, scene and costume shops and soaked electronic equipment.”

The hurricane’s strong wind affected other buildings, toppling a tree on Cougar Place, which was vacant. Additionally, Ike shattered numerous windows at University Business Park and the Fine Arts Building, which also had water damage via its roof. Four windows were blown out at the Hilton University of Houston Hotel, which was a haven for many evacuees. Twenty guests and their families, some from as far away as Galveston, as well as 30 staff members sought shelter at the hotel.

The wind, which gusted to 92 miles per hour when Ike reached Hobby Airport according to news reports, also had a devastating effect on the university’s landscape.

“The university had more than 7,000 trees on campus before the hurricane,” Irvin said. “During the hurricane, 1,000 to 1,200 trees fell and about 1,000 to 1,200 trees were damaged, some of which can be repaired. We lost our youngest trees and some wonderful 100-year-old oak trees in areas such as Lynn Eusan Park and at the intersection of Wheeler and Cullen.”

The storm’s “horizontal, wind-driven rain” seeped through windows causing minor problems in the Roy Cullen Building, the basements of E. Cullen and M.D. Anderson Library, the Houston Science Center and the Science and Research buildings 1 and 2, Irvin said.

And even though Hurricane Ike knocked out power to more than four million households and businesses in Harris and surrounding counties, only six UH buildings—Bayou Oaks, Cambridge Oaks, the Texas Learning and Computation Center Annex, Clinical Research Services, University Business Park and Cullen Oaks—lost electricity.

“None of the buildings that are serviced by UH’s central utility plant were without power,” Irvin said. “But, power outages occurred in buildings south of Wheeler Street that are fed by CenterPoint Energy.”

Despite the damage across campus, Irvin is optimistic that building repairs, which started the day after the hurricane’s landfall, will be completed by the start of the spring semester with the installation of new roofs on the broadcasting center, the Recreation and Wellness Center and the Fine Arts and architecture buildings occurring over the winter break.

“You find out in times like Tropical Storm Allison and Hurricane Ike what your family is made of,” Irvin said. “What Ike proved, again, is that the Cougar family is unbelievable. The devotion staff and faculty have for the university and the pride they have in this place are on full display. We have folks working 14- and 15-hour days to get UH back to normal. I’m almost overwhelmed by our family.”

Francine Parker