Naval Academy handles damage

Isabel's flooding forces school to work around unusable classrooms, labs

October 18, 2003|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Three weeks after Tropical Storm Isabel flooded the Naval Academy, the Annapolis college's leaders are still tallying the damage.

The academy will need to spend $40 million to replace the chilled-water plant and $4 million to buy new chemistry equipment. Then there are 112 classrooms and 159 laboratories that need repairs.

Academy officials declined to put a dollar figure on the damage yesterday, though the cost is believed to be at least $80 million. Still, the administrators who led reporters yesterday on a tour of buildings filled with plastic ventilation tubes and mildew odors were optimistic.

"It's feeling better in Week Three than it did on Day One," said Mark Smith, the academy's director of plans and programs.

Yesterday, the House of Representatives approved $40 million to repair the academy's communication, cooling system and utility lines. The funding was part of the supplemental appropriations bill for Iraq.

"It is imperative that we replace and upgrade these critical electrical and mechanical systems," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Maryland Democrat who introduced the measure.

The academy will need even more funding for a complete recovery. In the meantime, administrators are learning to be creative with space.

When the floodwaters disabled air conditioning across the campus, officials placed fans in the classrooms. They will bring in temporary air conditioners by spring as they attempt to rebuild the chilled-air plant on higher ground.

Students are rotating onto a floating 360-foot-long barge docked at the campus' Severn River seawall and into Alumni Hall and the field house while workers replace classroom carpeting and drywall.

At its peak, last month's storm left parts of the 338-acre campus about 8 feet underwater. Though midshipmen were not displaced from dorms, they have to dodge construction equipment and juggle their routines as classrooms shift places. Repairs can be slowed in buildings where classes continue upstairs; administrators don't want to do any electrical work that would endanger the students.

"The things that we can do, we're doing, and the things that could cause problems, we're putting off until later," said Navy Capt. Scott Pugh, who oversees the math and science department.

The chemistry labs in Chauvenet Hall sustained some of the worst damage as water covered 40-year-old wooden benches that were filled with Bunsen burners, hot plates and pH meters. All 1,200 freshmen are required to take chemistry lab, but for now they're relegated to "dry labs," where professors provide all the data from the experiments.

Senior chemistry majors are conducting experiments at labs at Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County and at other labs in the Washington area.

"There's no doubt that there's been a major loss in the program," said Jeffrey P. Fitzgerald, chairman of the academy's chemistry department. He said the academy is considering requiring summer school for making up lab work.

Midshipman 4th Class Brett Harrison said he has no complaints about the dry labs.

"As a student who would have to spend hours in a chemistry lab messing with chemicals, I don't mind so much," said Harrison, who is from Charlotte, N.C.

Harrison even sees advantages to taking his English lessons on a massive gray barge instead of in Sampson Hall. With only 13 classrooms, it's pretty quiet.

"Going to class on a barge has been interesting," he said. "It feels like you're aboard a Navy ship."

English Professor John Beckman said he tried to persuade academy officials to let him teach on the barge's deck and offered to bring chairs. Instead, he and his students crammed into an alcove near the metal stairs, reading Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried hunched over small desks.

Beckman, who said the barge classroom allows him to walk across campus and admire the Severn, calls teaching there "a total pleasure cruise." Even when television cameras film his discussion group, nobody dares complain.

"These midshipmen are pretty tenacious," Beckman said. "You could put them into a boiler room, and they would still be up to the task."

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