Just before 3 p.m. on Easter Sunday in 1988, Engineering Prof. Perry Samson ran into his backyard, anxiously peering up at the sky.

Angela Cesere
Angela Cesere
Angela Cesere
Angela Cesere
Angela Cesere
Angela Cesere

Wind speeds were almost 70 mph and tornado sirens were blaring. A vortex had been spotted nearby and the building thunderstorm was about to drop a twister.

His fellow Ann Arborites were hiding in their basements, but Samson, an extreme-weather junkie, stood outside his home examining the clouds for signs of rotation.

He worried about the storm’s direction: It was headed straight for the brass ‘M’ in the middle of the Diag.

The storm, which had formed in a mobile home park on the southeast side of the city, rambled haphazardly northeast, damaging several garages along Scio Church Road.

The twister petered out before reaching campus, weakly touching down once more north of M-14 before dying.

That time, the University escaped relatively unscathed: the storm tore shingles off the Art and Architecture Building, cut power on the Hill and wrested a few light fixtures from University Towers, but it harmed little else.

For University officials in the Department of Public Safety and several other emergency planning offices around campus, disasters like the 1988 tornado are a constant source of concern.

DPS maintains extensive emergency response plans mirroring that of a small city. They cover a breadth of disasters like flooding, terrorism and hazardous material spills.

These plans are updated every day as University departments identify new safety hazards and reevaluate old ones.

Some procedures – like how DPS officers would respond to an active gunman or a bomb threat – are top secret. Others are distributed widely – posted on DPS’s website, printed on flip charts in buildings across campus and taught to ushers at football games. Like most policies at the University, disaster planning is decentralized but loosely collaborative. DPS leads some initiatives, while University Health Services lead others. Some areas of campus just require fire drills. Others, like Michigan Stadium, are more complicated.

110,000 people with nowhere to go

Anyone who regularly attends Michigan football games knows the cardinal rule of fandom: don’t bring a big bag.

Since Sept. 11 game security at Michigan Stadium has increased dramatically. Spectators aren’t allowed bags larger than a two-slice toaster and police are constantly on the lookout for suspicious packages.

In line with federal regulation, airspace over the Big House is no-fly zone from one hour before the game until an hour after. Any planes entering the 3,000-foot-high, 3-square-nautical-mile space above the bowl must have clearance from air traffic controllers. Each football Saturday, a fire engine parks near the gates and stays for the duration of the game – just in case.

“Do we need to plan for terrorism? Yes,” DPS Spokeswoman Diane Brown said. “Is it highly likely it would happen? Who’s to say?”

She stressed that other emergencies pose a much more likely danger to fans. The biggest problem is evacuation – getting 110,000 people to move quickly and orderly out of a bowl-shaped structure with limited exits is obviously tricky.

Trampling is a very real threat, especially if scared fans try to escape via the field. On the turf, there’s only one way out: through the tunnel, which could easily become blocked. It’s not hard to imagine panicked fans crushing others against the field’s brick wall in the rush.

Once everyone is out of the stadium, the problem becomes relocation. In the event of inclement weather, fans would have almost no safe place to go. No buildings in the vicinity could hold as many as the stadium, and other big buildings such as Chrisler Arena would only create more danger.

“When you are trying to take shelter from a tornado, you don’t want to be under a large expanse roof like in Chrisler,” Brown said.

In the summer, DPS meets with the Athletic Department to plan and train for emergencies. They discuss how to reduce panic during emergencies and administer first aid. But they know they can’t outsmart Mother Nature.

“If we encounter that situation, we’ll try to do the best we can,” Brown said. “A little bit of it is just the risk people take when they come to an event.”

Safe haven at the ‘U’

At the University Hospital, patients’ lives depend on ventilators and intravenous drips. Something as simple as a power outage could kill hundreds.

“The big difference between the hospital and a business or another school is that we have people in our care who are fragile,” said Peter Forster, director of the hospital emergency department. “That puts a burden on us as caregivers to protect those people. Someone who’s just had surgery can’t run out of the building during a fire drill.”

The hospital is plugged into the University’s 10-mile-long electric power grid, which conducts enough electricity each year to power a 100-watt light bulb for 563,000 years. The grid produces much of its own power.

Several heavy electrical lines run to the hospital, which also maintains its own backup diesel generators. Multiple main circuits and an intricate web of redundancy make sure the lights never go out.

All of this proved crucial during the regional power outage in August 2003, which left many parts of the East Coast and Midwest scraping for extra energy sources.

Everything in Ann Arbor was dark, DPS Spokeswoman Diane Brown said. Except the University.

The community looks to the hospital for help in times of disaster, Forster said. During the blackout, some students wandered into the hospital thinking they could find something to eat.

The hospital would become even more of a focal point during a public health crisis like the much-discussed possibility of a bird flu epidemic. Health administrators have spent countless hours over the past two years studying how to best respond to an outbreak, which some estimate could kill more than 10,000 people at the University – a quarter of the student population. This could pose dozens of new problems to hospital management, most of all staffing and capacity.

“Our occupancy approaches 100 percent each day,” Forster said.

Should an epidemic break out, the hospital would likely not have enough beds. To cope, University officials have looked into using Palmer Commons and the Central Campus Recreation Building as field hospitals.

The hospital itself is built like a fortress.

The building’s physical defense structure is almost like a living organism, ready at any time to defend itself robotically against a fire, chemical spill or another emergency.

When a sensitive monitoring system detects a fire, flame-retardant doors automatically swing shut and ventilation systems re-direct the flow of air, preventing spread of smoke and starving the flames of fresh oxygen.

One of the building’s more serious foes was a stubborn patient receiving oxygen back in 2000. Hospital staff had confiscated cigarettes and matches from the man several times, but his wife continued to sneak packs past nurses’ watchful eyes. While alone with his contraband, he lit a cigarette in bed, sparking a blaze.

The fire was large enough to provoke the building’s defense system. Sprinklers set off in the room, spewing 30 gallons of water per minute into the room and down the hallway.

The man eventually died, though it’s unclear whether the fire directly caused his death, said Bruce Cadwallender, the hospital’s director of safety and emergency management. “It certainly didn’t help his situation,” he added.

What could really hurt you

Compared to other emergencies, house fires aren’t very glamorous. They are small, contained and short. But they are incredibly frequent, and thus the most dangerous.

Seniors will remember at least three serious fires during their time on campus. The National Fire Protection Association tallied more than 3,000 deaths and 15,000 injuries from structural fires in 2005. It’s a killer that could strike at any minute in any place.

In the student ghetto, it’s even worse. Thousands of people cram into a small geographical area. Many off-campus houses are decades old, with ancient circuitry. That, coupled with a few cases of student carelessness, creates a high risk of devastating fires.

“There are many challenges with the whole fire safety issue and those I think warrant a lot of ink,” Brown said. “It could happen tonight. It’s not that unlikely.”

Off-campus housing fires have a destructive and deadly history in Ann Arbor.

In 1950, a massive fire destroyed most of Haven Hall. Students tried to save some of the 20,000 valuable records from the Bureau of Government library as firefighters tried to douse the flames. They were largely unsuccessful. The fire consumed more than $3 million worth of damage. At the time, it was the single most costly disaster ever to strike campus.

Four years later, on the freezing cold night of Oct. 28, 1954, a boarding house at 508 Monroe St. caught fire. Flames shot 20 feet into the air, drawing a crowd of spectators and volunteers.

All but two of the 14 residents escaped, many via a ladder placed under a second-story window by a group of men from South Quadrangle. Rackham student Elizabeth Vandegrift perished in the blaze along with her landlady Florence Hendriksen. Police believed Vandegrift died in attempt to save Hendriksen.

Today, the chance of fire in campus buildings remains high. Departments with hazardous or flammable materials closely monitor their storage and use, and safety regulations evolve annually as federal standards increase.

Flooding, long a concern of those in the Huron River Valley, is now almost completely controlled by a series of dams regulating water flow.

The University’s situation on high ground largely protects it from any river flooding, but up until a few years ago campus still had major problems controlling intense rain run-off. In more extreme instances long ago, the Diag area flooded with enough water to create a standing lake. In 1910, three fun-loving students took advantage of the temporary pond, floating “The Lover,” their small boat, in front of West Hall.

Since then, the University has installed a complicated set of waterways to help Ann Arbor city’s water system handle massive downpours.

Deep beneath the labs of the Life Sciences Institute is a 1.8-million gallon retention tank. On days of heavy rain, all the runoff from the core 40 acres of campus is funneled to this tank, where it sits until torrents in Ann Arbor city’s drains recede. A similar system on North Campus uses series of water detention cells to release excess rainfall slowly into a natural wetland near the Art and Architecture Building.

As in 1988, tornados pose a threat as well.

Tornados only strike Ann Arbor once every few decades – usually in April, June or July – but they can happen any time of the year if the conditions are right.

“Without any warning, Michigan always has the potential to be hit,” said Samson, who teaches a class on extreme weather and last year led students tornado chasing in Oklahoma and Texas.

The destructive power of tornados has been well demonstrated, and it’s not just confined to the Great Plains: a Flint tornado in 1953 killed 116 people and injured 844. Over the years, Southeastern Michigan has seen several F-2 tornados, which support winds as high as 157 mph and can uproot large trees.

Samson and DPS officials say the best way to react in a tornado is to do what you learned in elementary school: go to a room in the center of a building, away from windows and loose objects and cover your head.

“If there’s an approaching storm, take it seriously,” Samson said. “Get yourself into a tornado shelter or a basement.”

On the whole, terrorism, fires and extreme weather pose little threat to students’ daily lives. In his Extreme Weather 101 class, Samson routinely asks students to list, in order, the most substantial threats to their lives. Inevitably, someone always lists a drastic scenario.

“Weather ends up being a thousand times less risky than smoking or obesity and a whole bunch of other stuff. On the big scale, it’s not all that risky,” he said. “Probably more people have died from (car crashes cause by) fog than have died from tornadoes in Washtenaw County.”

A history of flopped catastrophes

Emergency planning has rapidly evolved over the 20th and 21st centuries at a rapid pace. In the early decades of the 1900s, Ann Arborites were mostly at the mercy of the elements. A fire could whip through rows of wooden boarding houses with a vengeance. A good rain could overrun the city’s water system and flood Central Campus.

A new fear cropped up in the Cold War. Mass media and government propaganda instilled apprehension of nuclear war. The University wrote bomb drills into its safety codes and secured fallout shelters to house refugees of atomic war. A pamphlet published in the early 1950s by the Detroit Office of Civil Defense advised Michiganders that their chances of living through an atomic attack are “better than you may have thought.”

While a nuclear war never materialized, Cold War preparation developed general emergency-planning techniques. State agencies had to learn how to work with municipalities and emergency experts had to find a way to communicate their messages to the public.

Purported disasters that famously never came to be gave more tangible contributions to emergency planning.

The University poured manpower into preparing for the inevitable pandemonium that was supposed to accompany Y2K, figuring out how to keep students, faculty, research projects and even research animals safe in the event of a disaster that was supposed to wipe out phones, electricity and computer systems.

When Jan. 1, 2000 proved largely peaceful, safety officers found themselves with a large stack of plans and no emergency. It seemed they had planned for something that wasn’t going to happen.

Not so. During the sweeping power outages that blackened almost one-third of the country in August 2003, administrators dug out the old plans. Thanks to backup energy and redundant water mains, the hospital maintained operations – even air conditioning.

“It wasn’t like everything was well-lit. We were all pretty dark. The planning from Y2K was very important there,” Brown said.

Sept. 11, 2001 helped evolve emergency planning even more. Emergency plans had chapters on natural, nuclear, electronic and biological disasters, and administrators had practice executing them.

In the following months, a suspicious campus stayed fearful. Several politicians and journalists in Washington and New York received letters with traces of anthrax. Half a dozen people died.

During a period of several weeks, DPS responded to more than 100 calls reporting suspicious white powder.

“None of them ever got close to being anthrax,” Brown said.

Most of the dust turned out to be drywall or laundry detergent.

Still, the threats kept campus attentive and DPS responsive. University officials learned how to handle a deadly threat that could be mailed, released into air vents or dispersed in water supplies. Had anything really happened, the infrastructure was there and response teams were ready.

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