Fixing a high-tech disaster

Damage: The Naval Academy is working to replace more than $20 million worth of equipment lost when Tropical Storm Isabel tore through.

March 31, 2004|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

One tree and a tangle of branches. That's all Tropical Storm Isabel's winds took from the Naval Academy's sprawling, 338-acre grounds when it ripped through Annapolis in September.

When Isabel's 8-foot storm surge flooded into the school's academic buildings and laboratories, however, it knocked out more than $20 million worth of sophisticated electronic equipment.

Six months later, the Naval Academy is still without some of its most prized apparatus -- from lasers and microscopes to a 380-foot towing tank used for testing models of ships and submarines -- as the $68.2 million that Congress allocated for the school's recovery effort continues to trickle in.

"These were large pieces of gear with the kind of instrumentation that gets toasted by salty water," said Michael C. Halbig, associate dean for faculty and a member of the academy's restoration team.

For a military college that prides itself on advanced technical training, it was a mighty blow.

"It was the worst physical catastrophe the Naval Academy has ever faced," said Halbig.

Compared with replanting trees, stripping carpets and ordering new classroom furniture, repairing and replacing the academy's high-tech equipment has proved to be a Herculean task. Although Congress granted the recovery funds in November, the effort has been slowed by the time and paperwork required to replace the school's most valued gear.

"We're all pushing hard to get us back to where we were," said Halbig.

Until last month, Halbig and others on the academy's restoration team met daily to discuss the "large-ticket" items the storm struck. Although some pieces were salvaged and repaired, others have to be replaced -- a process complicated by procurement papers required by the Department of the Navy for the purchase of any item costing more than $100,000.

Although all the academy's procurement papers were submitted by the Feb. 28 deadline, faculty members had to work long hours to complete them.

"These were very detailed papers," said Halbig. Faculty members "were triply, or in some cases quadruply, stretched."

In addition to the procurement process, the academy faced the challenge of repairing or replacing items familiar to few manufacturers. One example: the academy's supersonic wind tunnel, a huge airway used to test flight models.

"Not a lot of people make these things," said Cmdr. Pete Nardi, deputy director of the division of engineering and weapons.

On a recent tour of Rickover Hall, the engineering building, Nardi pointed out a hole in the wind tunnel caused by the storm. The missing piece -- a glass balance used to hold models in the tunnel for observation -- was shipped out for repair several months ago at a cost of about $800,000.

Isabel also took a toll on Rickover's two towing tanks, large reservoirs of water used for testing vessels.

"We essentially lost the ability to make waves and control the tank," explained Nardi, who hopes the tanks will be repaired by August.

Chauvenet Hall, the academy's chemistry department, sustained even greater damage than did Rickover. Jeffrey P. Fitzgerald, head of the department, said his list of missing or broken lab items has grown to more than 1,000 lines -- approximately $3 million worth of equipment.

Fitzgerald said that in addition to chemicals, glassware and lasers, the chemistry program's greatest loss was a scanning microscope and its nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) capability, which enabled students to examine nuclei in magnetic fields. The academy's new NMR will take more than a month to install when it arrives this summer.

Because Isabel left Chauvenet flood-damaged, the structure is being rebuilt. The more than 1,200 midshipmen required to take chemistry are working out of prefabricated modular units located on the Severn River bank. Although the temporary labs lack Bunsen burners and gas, Fitzgerald said it's better than having no equipment at all.

By August, Halbig said, he hopes the academy will be celebrating the return of all its equipment.

"That's our goal," he said. "There's already an enormous sense of relief because although we've lost pieces, we are -- on the whole -- putting things back together."

In the meantime, students and faculty are traveling to research facilities such as the National Institutes of Health to complete required projects.

To prepare for any future flooding, Halbig said, the academy is, if anything, aiming high.

"The next time the bay comes in, all the expensive stuff will be above deck," he said.

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