Ernesto: The storm that never was

While university officials coordinated efforts to prepare for Tropical Storm Ernesto, many students had no worries, with some playing ultimate Frisbee on the intramural fields and other casually strolling around campus in anticipation.

Rain fell sporadically and the sky was overcast at this time Tuesday afternoon, hours before the storm was expected to begin battering the Coral Gables campus.

A day earlier, Monday of last week, the decision to cancel classes and all other activities at UM was made at noon after the Crisis Decision Team evaluated the situation. This group includes “core” vice presidents and deans, among other university officials.

On a conference call Tuesday, the CDT made sure all the necessary measures were in motion. President Donna E. Shalala ended the call with a simple, “Everybody button up.”

By the next afternoon, the Coral Gables, Rosentiel and Miller campuses were all prepared for a severe tropical storm, from the shutters and sandbags around the University Center to the boards on windows on the Mahoney-Pearson lobbies.

At the heart of the university’s response plan sat the Emergency Operations Center, tucked away in a windowless room on the first floor of the Flipse building. There, staffers answered telephone call from students and concerned parents, in addition monitoring the situation on television and the internet.

“This is an excellent test, dry-run in that it’s not a severe storm,” Sarah Artecona, assistant vice president for Media and Community Relations, said before the storm. “It’s also a great test because we have new deans.”

Plans were also implemented to keep students’ stomachs full after the dining halls closed at 3 p.m. on Tuesday with snack packs that were provided.

Mel Tenen, assistant vice president of auxiliary services, said this year the snack packs have been enhanced, with the amount of water and fruit, for instance, being doubled.

Tenen said that 4,500 packs were handed out Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., the same amount served to on-campus residents, University Village students and university contract workers in that timeframe.

“We’re fortunate to have a contractor like Chartwells who, in the past and again this time, always steps up to the plate to meet the needs of students and the whole university community,” Tenen said.

When the CDT reconvened after Ernesto passed, the decision was made to re-open the university on Thursday since damage was limited to only a few fallen palm fawns and one tree.

To begin the call, Shalala once again summed up the moment.

“Well we survived,” she said, “whatever it was.”

But many students expressed disappointment that the storm was not more intense.

“We were upset that there was no hurricane,” Fahad Ben Salamah, a sophomore, said.

Ben Salamah, who lives off-campus, said that he stocked up on food and water and watched television, waiting for the storm to come.

On-campus, preparing for and anticipating the storm was a different situation.

Teresa Mitzel, a junior who worked security at Eaton for 12 hours during the storm, said that it could be difficult keeping students in the residence hall.

“We tried to discourage people from leaving the building, to prevent putting themselves and others at harm,” she said. She added that, had the storm been more intense, students opening doors may have allowed massive amounts of water and rain to flood the building.

But Eaton security did not only deal with its own residents. Some of the students who were evacuated from the apartment area were housed in the Eaton lobby, as well as in space available in Hecht and Stanford.

This plan, among many others the university carried out, made certain student safety came first, with Artecona noting that predictions for the storm involved lots of rain.

“I think we did an excellent job,” she said after the storm with regards to the university’s overall efforts. “It was a great exercise for us. It gave us a chance to run through our exercises and preparations.”

Some students, such as Mitzel, agreed.

“I think the university preparation was much better than last year,” Mitzel said.

Others, such as sophomore Kristine Kaminskas, thought the university took the storm too seriously.

“They overreacted,” she said. “It was nice to get the two days off for no rain and 5-mile per hour winds. It was not a big deal for people who have already been through hurricanes. When they started evacuating a bunch of places, I thought maybe they were lying to us.”

Out of all the hype before Ernesto hit, it remains to be seen whether students will take the next storm seriously.

“Each storm is different and we will continue to emphasize to students to take every one seriously,” Artecona said.

Shelley Rood also contributed to this article.

Greg Linch may be contacted at