The University of Newcastle, Australia

Stormy weather

Thursday, 23 April 2015

For a Vice-Chancellor a 5am call is never going to be good news - and so it was when the mobile rang early on Tuesday morning after a night of wild winds, torrential rain and the sounds of distant sirens.

Tree down at Shortland BuildingOur COO, Nat McGregor gave me a summary of the first news from the 'team on the ground'. At Callaghan many trees were down across the campus - some blocking roads, some landing on buildings and one had even managed to land in a swimming pool in our residences; branches, wet leaves and debris were strewn across the campus and the wind and rain showed no sign of stopping soon.

There were some issues at University House and our Central Coast campus had trees down blocking access to the campus, some flooding in the lower car park and no power. We also knew that travel to and from Sydney was going to be difficult and that many of our staff and students were waking up across the region to face a day without power or means of communication and some unable to leave their homes and worried about the impact of the weather on their homes, family and friends. The one ray of sunshine - was that our staff and students at Port Macquarie were facing better weather and were safe.

View more photos of the storm damage here

Flooding in OurimbahA swift response

And so we made the decision to close our Central Coast, Callaghan and Newcastle CBD campuses and the day began. The Critical Incident Team pulled together under Nat's leadership set up a coordination centre at the Infrastructure Services Building – communications were established and distributed regarding campus closure before 7am across Ourimbah, Newcastle and Callaghan and the team began to gather the information with an absolute focus on what actions were required to ensure the safety of our student and staff residents across our sites. 

At the end of Tuesday, Alan Tracey's remarkable IFS team had been out in the horizontal rain capturing the images of the worst affected areas of Callaghan. Stalwart colleagues at the Central Coast had sourced fuel for our generators and our resident students at Ourimbah were ensconced in the library and in good spirits.

Travel to, from and across Sydney remained difficult and we decided to close our Sydney campus for the next 24 hours to give students and staff some respite. 

As darkness fell our Security staff and their SNP partners – who would work tirelessly across day and night and through the week to come - were on duty at our campuses as we faced a night of more unpredictable storms. Tree down outside The Conservatorium

The night brought mixed weather outcomes across the region and in the morning our IFS teams at Callaghan took the opportunity as the wind gusts died down to begin to plan the clean-up and remediation of the campus, to contact contractors who would remove the trees, branches and debris and to access buildings to assess water and other weather related damage. Further assessments were carried out at Ourimbah and satellite phone communications were established.

Keeping us on track and informed

The Critical Incident Team focussed on developing solutions for a myriad of issues related to IT, research facilities, ensuring staff pay would be on time, student assessment and assignment deadlines and many more. The M&PR team continued to work in partnership with IT Services, Student Central and 2NURFM to maximise communication using all known forms of media to reach our staff and students wherever they were hunkered down to let them know what we knew about the impact of the storm, who they should contact about their concerns and when we might 'open for business'.   

Yesterday afternoon - after I had been inducted on the known safety issues, I walked around Callaghan with Alan and was impressed at the difference between the 'before' photo shots of the extensive tree associated damage taken just the day before and the extent of the work that had been able to be carried out to get us close to functional so we could open today.

We are disappointed that Ourimbah remains without power so we cannot open the campus today, but we understand the impressive work that is going on across the Coast to reconnect power to the region.  

So colleagues, I know it has been a tough 72 hours and more for most of you and that there is much work to be done at home, at UON and across our region to restore lives to normal.  Thank you for your patience and forbearance. We are a resilient institution and we live in resilient communities – and I do hope you and your families are and remain safe.


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