Embry-Riddle university battered, but recovering from costly twister


Published: Sunday, January 21, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 20, 2007 at 11:45 p.m.

DAYTONA BEACH — Sitting on the storm-weary Atlantic Coast, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University was prepared for hurricanes.

But the school, home to one of the nation's top flight and engineering programs, was not ready for the F2 tornado that tore through on Christmas Day. The storm demolished its airplane hangar, hurdled Cessna airplanes around campus and spewed debris through windows and into buildings. Because it was Christmas and school was out of session, no one was hurt. But the storm caused $50 million to $60 million in damages, destroyed 40 out of 65 training aircraft and displaced some 200 staff and faculty members.

Hurricanes linger and churn at sea days before hitting land, enabling the school to scramble its fleet to a safe location. But there was no warning before the tornado's estimated 120 mph winds struck.

"Quite frankly, that wasn't real high on our list before," Chancellor Thomas Connolly said. "Nobody thought a whole lot about tornadoes."

Classes resumed six days later than scheduled, but all 5,000 students returned. The school has temporarily replaced its planes with dozens on short-term lease, and is awaiting delivery of several modular buildings that staff members could be working out of for a couple years. The main administration building was a total loss and remains boarded. Students have taken to calling it the "Plywood Palace."

Most classrooms weren't damaged, though one building required a new wall after a Cessna 172 was thrown 200 yards and exploded inside. The dry erase boards no longer erase, because of the cleaning agents used to wipe down the rooms.

Connolly said insurance would cover all but about $1 million of the damages, not including the administration building, which is still being assessed. He expected the school's fundraising campaign to more than cover those costs.

Connolly's office has been relocated to a conference room in the student center, which he shares with six other people. The office of student employment was operating out of a corner in the cafeteria, and the basketball team is playing its home games at Daytona Beach Community College. Still, Connolly says the campus is recovering quickly.

It helped that four major construction projects were under way, giving the school instant access to contractors to clear the debris. None of the projects, which include a new fitness center and dormitory, were affected.

All but about 800 of the 10,000 library books soaked in the storm were saved, and about 70 percent of the buildings on campus suffered little or no damage.

Students are already up and running in the new airplanes. With 200 takeoffs and landings each day, the school claims one of the state's busiest airports.

Connolly said officials were considering a new administration building anyway.

"It was kind of old and tired," he said. "We've talked about developing an integrated student services building on campus. This might be a good way to do that — to design it for all the services in one place along with campus administration."

The school was also planning to tear down its hangar and build a new flight operations building — though not quite so soon.

Connolly was spending the holiday with family in Jacksonville Beach — about 100 miles north — and almost didn't believe it when he heard about the storm.

"The weather was fine up there," he said.

He wasn't optimistic after his first campus tour. The hangar had collapsed, windows were broken all over the place, and even the student center — where all the displaced staff are working temporarily — looked like a loss.

The school had to rent seven hangars at the nearby Daytona Beach airport just to store office supplies and furniture recovered from the wrecked buildings. Surplus chairs and filing cabinets are still stacked in the basketball arena, waiting to find a new home.

"This is a warehouse now," Connolly said, standing inside.

The university contacted students by phone, e-mail and Internet sites like facebook.com to keep them abreast of cleanup and assure them school would be back in session.

Several said they heard the news from one another.

"We started a phone tree," said Zack Wilson, a sophomore studying aviation maintenance science.

Wilson said the campus looked bare on his first day back at school, because the tornado uprooted and destroyed so many plants.

"It's like walking through a field," he said. "We had some big trees."

Still, Wilson said he was impressed with the quick recovery.

"They did a good job cleaning everything up," he said. "Some of those rooms probably haven't been cleaned that good in 30 years."

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