What the Disaster Planning Lessons Didn't Teach You

Officials at the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) could never have predicted their tragedy -- but, in hindsight, they have plenty of heads-up warnings to help other college administrators weather the unforeseen. As the first college in America to sustain damage in a terrorism attack, BMCC hopes to fill the gaps disaster planning manuals don’t address.

In the Heat of Battle

On September 11, 2001, BMCC students occupied 40 classrooms and labs at Fiterman Hall at 30 West Broadway, with 30 more scheduled to come on line within three weeks, thanks to a $64-million renovation project nearing completion. When the first plane hit the towers just three blocks away, officials immediately realized it wouldn’t be wise to ring the fire alarms, which would send students scattering out the closest exits. “In previous evacuation procedures, the goal was simply to get people out of the building as quickly as possible,” says LouAnne Bulik, spokesperson for the college. “But, in this case, we needed people to evacuate from only the north side of the building to avoid stepping right into the World Trade Center emergency.” Instead, administrators physically knocked on doors to coordinate the exit.

Next, the chief engineer immediately shut down the heating and air-conditioning systems and closed open windows to cut off debris circulation in the campus’ buildings even before the towers fell. Of course, officials could do nothing to save the 15-story Fiterman Hall from taking the brunt of the debris that rained down on the financial district that morning and which greatly damaged the facility.

Through the next 19 days, the decision that saved this college from losing more than Fiterman’s 370,000 sq. ft. was Vice President of Administration and Planning Scott Anderson’s refusal to abandon the BMCC campus itself. By as early as 5:30 p.m. on September 11, he invited the Port Authority Police Depart-ment (PAPD) to use the main campus space at 199 Chambers St. as a disaster relief post, and established a round-the-clock schedule for maintenance workers to clean up after the 3,000 people flowing 24 hours a day through the halls.

“Mopping proved to be as valuable as any craftsman,” says Anderson. “The area tracked huge amounts of contaminants from Ground Zero -- most shoes were covered in cement and biological waste a half-inch thick.” Workers kept their mops and buckets in motion 24/7. BMCC officials also confined movement to the first two floors only, a move that not only spared them additional cleaning but also cut down on public looting.

However, Anderson warns, don’t assume the presence of police in a facility replaces internal security. “They are there to address an emergency, not guard private property. That’s the college’s responsibility,” he says. His own office was broken into and several laptops throughout the system were stolen before administrators put their own security in place.

And extending a hand to the PAPD reaped an enormous benefit. The college couldn’t reopen without electricity, a gift the policing authorities brought with them at the first opportunity. BMCC proudly counts itself the first major structure to turn on the lights in lower Manhattan.

As a result of these common-sense decisions, BMCC reopened the main campus space a mere three weeks later on October 1, with a clean bill of health from private consultants.

Finding Space

To replace the classroom space lost at the damaged Fiterman Hall, Anderson ordered six portable trailers from Canada -- each capable of housing two separate classrooms -- which he parked along the sides of campus with permission from the city. Next, officials carved up common space within the main campus building -- a structure as long as the Empire State Building is tall -- starting with the 16,000 sq. ft. of cafeteria space. Today, students make do with 2,400 sq. ft. for food needs. The student lounge became four classrooms, and the former weight training and aerobics classrooms provided three more class spaces. Finally, the reception area, a beautiful spot overlooking the Hudson River, yielded three classrooms.

At the present time, Anderson continues to juggle 17,000 students and 7,000 adult continuing education participants in this one building. The population pressure on this facility is taking its toll. Because it was only rated to handle 8,500 people, the escalators are no longer reliable. Anderson is looking for some rental space in the area -- and a few million dollars to address the vertical transport system.

As for the rest of the tab -- overtime for workers, consultants, trailer rental -- BMCC went out of pocket to pay. “You make a promise to the students, the staff, the union,” says Anderson. “So you have an ethical obligation to see they are safe and able to carry on.” But he does have one piece of advice: apply for a credit card, even if you keep it in a black tin box in the file cabinet. “By 4:30 that afternoon, we knew we needed a generator. Yet we’re a public institution -- we pay on contracts and purchase order systems.

“In these times, you do business with Mom and Pop who want cash payments,” he says.

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