The Storm Riders


left to right: Jim Nicholson, Blake Blanchard, Jason Sahl and Joe Steinbach
Pictured above, left to right: Jim Nicholson, Blake Blanchard, Jason Sahl and Joe Steinbach

As Hurricane Florence’s unrelenting rain and dangerous winds battered the UNCW campus, four men waited in Hoggard Hall for the first opportunity to begin the hard work of cleaning up. Each had his own home to think about but had volunteered to remain on campus throughout the storm and well afterward to clear roads, refuel generators and help with damage assessment.
 
Assistant physical plant director Jim Nicholson, HVAC supervisor Jason Sahl, HVAC technician Joe Steinbach and HVAC controls technician Blake Blanchard set up camp in Hoggard Hall Room 125, where UNCW’s Emergency Operations Center is located. They watched through a nearby window as Florence’s winds bent mighty trees to the ground and littered the campus with debris.
 
“During the storm we always felt safe, more concerned about the campus, buildings, research and how long we had before generators ran out of gas,” said Sahl, who has been at UNCW since last year. But despite the air mattresses they brought for personal comfort, no one got much sleep.
 
“The work was pretty much around the clock,” said Nicholson, a UNCW employee since 2012.
 
Critical generators protecting research specimens, facilities and emergency operations had to be refueled day and night to keep them running.
 
It is customary to have two to four physical plant employees remain on campus during weather events such as hurricanes and winter storms, but with Florence at Category 4 strength shortly before landfall, supervisors knew this storm would require considerably more commitment than usual. The four men volunteered and stayed in the EOC, along with Environmental Health & Safety personnel and UNCW Police Department officers.
 
“I have stayed on campus multiple times for storms,” said Blanchard, a UNCW employee since 2013. “The experience with Matthew [in 2016] wasn't as challenging as Florence was.”
 
Once the wind subsided enough to allow them outside, the real work began. “The first priority was trying to get one lane open all around campus,” Nicholson said. Wielding chainsaws, they cut away fallen trees to provide a clear path for UPD officers, emergency operations staff and diesel trucks.
 
The trickiest part of the assignment, aside from several tornado warnings as the storm continued its slow trek through the area, was driving to the CREST campus on Masonboro Sound Road.
 
With stoplights out and trees and power lines down, the roads were “dicey,” said Steinbach, a three-year employee. “I don’t know that we ever went the same way twice.” Complicating matters further, some refueling trips had to be made in the dark, with Wilmington almost completely blacked out by the storm.
 
Most had sent their families out of harm’s way, except for Nicholson, whose wife, Sheila, is administrative assistant to Carolina Beach’s town manager and was stationed in the town’s EOC. “I cut off the electricity and water and boarded up the windows, so I wasn’t too worried,” said Steinbach, who lives in Holden Beach. Friends checked on the place for him so he could keep working.
 
Sahl sent his wife and children to stay with relatives in Florida but he knew he had to be ready to return as soon as he was needed. “I knew that getting back to campus would be challenging and that there would be critical systems needing to stay online,” he said.
 
All four had some damage to their property, and most had some water inside their homes. But they felt fortunate to have made it through the storm without extensive losses.
 
By the Wednesday following the storm, more key employees were able to return and a building-by-building report was completed. “That’s when a clear picture of the total damage started coming in,” Nicholson explained. That’s also when recovery began. And everyone pitched in.
 
“It didn’t matter what your job was before the storm,” said Blanchard. “You just did what needed to be done.”

-- Tricia Vance