Rowan community steps up to assist hurricane evacuees

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As Hurricane Irene threatened the lives and livelihoods of residents in our region, scores of volunteers from throughout South Jersey came together at Rowan University to help neighbors in need.

In an event full of dramatic stories, perhaps the biggest story was this: As Hurricane Irene threatened the lives and livelihoods of residents in our region, scores of volunteers from throughout South Jersey came together at Rowan University to help neighbors in need.

And help they did...in ways big and small.

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Additional Stories:

Video: Rowan Responds

Slide Show: Volunteers

Hurricane Irene: Their Stories

Phila. Inquirer Op-Ed by President Houshmand

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Rowan University became New Jersey's first Red Cross Evacuation Center from Hurricane Irene as 1,200 evacuees from the Atlantic City area began arriving by bus to Esbjornson (Esby) Gym and the Recreation Center at noon on Friday, Aug. 26--more than 24 hours before the storm hit.

The center reached full capacity by 6 p.m. that day and, for the next 50-plus hours, evacuees hunkered down at Rowan, where more than 100 University, community and local volunteers joined emergency officials from around the area and state to assist the evacuees and ride out the storm.

Since Rowan was the first evacuation site, thanks to the Office of the Governor, the University also was the first site to allow evacuees to return home. By 2:20 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 28, 50 buses provided by the state Office of Emergency Management were en route to take the evacuees back to Atlantic City.

And while many praised Rowan for its role in the emergency, Interim President Ali Houshmand said Rowan's role as an evacuation center was a team effort that drew a huge response from the University community--and the region.

"South Jersey truly is a community. And when we come together, as one, extraordinary things can happen," said Houshmand, as he surveyed the bustling Rowan Rec Center on Sunday morning, just a few hours before the evacuees were given the go-ahead to go home.

Altogether, 37 Red Cross shelters housed more than 13,000 evacuees statewide, according to Laura Steinmetz, director of community/government relations for the Gloucester County Chapter of the American Red Cross. At Rowan, evacuees included premature babies on up to people in their 90s.

A Rowan welcome

Evacuees arriving at the University were greeted by Rowan Public Safety officers, Red Cross volunteers, and a committed cadre of student volunteers. Students, most of whom are resident assistants and directors, helped with registration and handed out snacks and refreshments.

As the call for assistance went University- and county-wide, volunteers showed up in droves to offer support. Rowan students, faculty, staff, administrators and alumni pitched right in, working in assembly-line fashion to unload and set up 1,200 cots and blankets at breakneck speed.

Under the supervision of Rowan's Counseling & Psychological Services Center and Student Health Center, the Rec Center's group exercise room was transformed into a 25-bed medical triage unit. The first to respond with staff was Rowan's neighbor, Kennedy Memorial Hospital, which supplied a steady stream of physicians, nurses, and supplies, as well as leadership of the unit. Additional support was provided by physicians from Rowan's partner, Cooper University Hospital. Volunteer nurses and the staff from Rowan's RN-to-BSN Program also offered assistance.

Rowan community members joined with Sodexo Dining Services to serve hot meals to the evacuees, many of whom hadn't eaten for most of Friday.

Support from South Jersey

Meanwhile, as local merchants donated everything from donuts to hamburgers to pizzas for hungry evacuees and volunteers, community members arrived en masse to help. Local residents drove up in their cars and unloaded bags of food and clothing. Some brought toys and activities for children, including stuffed animals, crafts and games.

Before the rains came, Rowan students--athletes, fraternity and sorority members, resident assistants--helped keep the dozens of small children at the shelter busy.

Additionally, area churches provided outreach to families--and even music--while the Islamic Relief USA, which partners with the Red Cross, also brought volunteers and food.

Even evacuees' pets had a warm, safe home at Rowan. A temporary animal shelter was set up in the loading dock at Education Hall and was overseen by Gloucester County Animal Control.

Houshmand noted that Rowan's Department of Public Safety received tremendous support from community officials, including the Gloucester County Emergency Response Team, the New Jersey State Police, police from New Jersey State Human Services, New Jersey Air National Guard, Gloucester County, and the Borough of Glassboro.  

‘A huge undertaking'

As evacuees prepared to board buses to leave, Rowan students and volunteers from local community churches were still handing out snacks for the ride home, including bananas and freshly washed nectarines, many of them donated by local growers. Members of Rowan's facilities staff, who worked feverishly to keep the Evacuation Center clean for three days, helped with the massive clean-up, as did a committed group of Rowan faculty, staff and students.

Atlantic City's Walter McGraw, 79, praised the efforts as he waited for a bus back home.

"They've done a remarkable job," he said. "The young people who volunteered here are nice, decent people."

The University was grateful for the community support, said Houshmand, who noted the University fared remarkably well in the storm.

"This has been a huge undertaking," he noted. "We've had a great outpouring of support. I really am very, very proud of our efforts."

Junior chemical engineering major Peter Schwalbenberg was equally proud. A resident assistant in Mimosa Hall, Schwalbenberg and his fellow RAs volunteered tirelessly over the weekend, assisting wherever they were needed.

"They told us we could go home several times, but we were more worried about helping all of the people in need," Schwalbenberg said. "The evacuees were in our school. We wanted to help any way we could.

"We really felt that this was making a difference to the people of Atlantic County. I was really proud of Rowan, of our response."

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With our thanks

Rowan University would like to thank those groups mentioned in this story, as well as the organizations and offices below, for their assistance:

Fellowship Bible Church, Covenant Presbyterian Church, Church of St. Bridget, Calvary Hill Church, Ambassador Christian Academy, Mercy Hill Presbyterian Church, Gloucester County Community Church, Gloucester County Calvary, Shop Rite, Acme, Pro-Pak Produce, Girl Scouts, Volunteers of America, People for People Foundation of Gloucester County, Islamic Relief USA, McDonald's, Dunkin' Donuts, the citizens of the Glassboro area, the offices of Senators Sweeney and Madden and Glassboro Mayor McCabe...and dozens of volunteers who never identified themselves, but gave generously and selflessly to the relief effort.

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