Forces of Nature

Campus endures brushes with earthquake, hurricane
October 1, 2011
Fallen history

Fallen history: A willow oak dating to the early days of Duke succumbed to Hurricane Irene winds, toppling in front of West Duke Building on East Campus.
Chelsea Pieroni, Duke Chronicle

Orientation week is often an eventful time on campus, but this year, Mother Nature had a few surprises for returning students. First came an earthquake, the largest felt by the East Coast in decades. The quake, centered near Richmond, Virginia, lasted for about twenty seconds on the afternoon of August 23—which happened to be move-in day for about 1,700 Duke first-year students. Registering 5.8 on the Richter scale, it was felt from Ontario to South Carolina. Around Duke, thousands noticed an unmistakable rumble under their feet, leading campus phone lines to fill with calls about what had happened. No injuries or physical damage were reported as a result of the quake, and move-in went on undeterred—although perhaps more memorably so.

Just days later, Duke’s upperclassmen were affected by another natural event: the approach of Hurricane Irene. The storm was forecast to make landfall on North Carolina’s eastern coast on Saturday, August 27—just twenty-four hours after dorms were due to open for upperclassmen to move in and two days before the start of fall-semester classes. Anticipating travel delays and potentially dangerous conditions, Duke student- affairs officers shifted plans, e-mailing students with the option of moving in earlier in the week. At the peak of move-in, housing staff checked in 671 students in 690 minutes—all while settling the nerves of anxious parents and advising students on emergency procedures should the hurricane reach campus.

Irene also caused the evacuation of the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort, near where the storm was expected to make landfall. Though battered by sheeting rain and winds above 110 miles per hour, the campus suffered only minor damage. The lab reopened on the Monday following the hurricane, and classes began on Wednesday, just two days behind schedule.

Meanwhile, the campus was spared the worst of Irene, which skirted to the east of the Triangle. Winds from the hurricane’s outer bands reached forty-five miles per hour in Durham, toppling several trees and knocking down power lines in a few campusarea neighborhoods. One prominent victim was a forty-foot-tall willow oak, which fell against West Duke Building on East Campus.

By Saturday evening, however, the weather had calmed enough for 1,200 members of the Class of 2015 to make their way to an orientation party at the Nasher Museum of Art. True, a drizzly rain persisted, and the winds occasionally gusted. But the students didn’t seem bothered. After all, they’d already been through an earthquake.