More than 1,000 people from the greater Binghamton area spent Wednesday night and Thursday morning inside Binghamton University’s Events Center and West Gym seeking shelter from the danger of flooding caused by a deluge of rain on Wednesday.
The rain and subsequent flooding caused the University to cancel classes after 3 p.m. Wednesday and all day Thursday.
By order of County Executive Patrick Brennan, Broome County declared a state of emergency and ordered mandatory evacuation of homes and areas that experienced flooding when record rainfall struck Binghamton in June 2006.
Specific parts of the Town of Union and Johnson City, as well as parts of Downtown and the Southside of Binghamton, were also ordered to evacuate Wednesday.
All of Downtown Binghamton was evacuated Thursday morning.
The Red Cross opened 15 shelters in the area, including the Events Center, on Wednesday for people endangered by the flooding, according to Amy Hegy, public affairs manager for the American Red Cross’ Hurricane Irene response efforts in New York State.
BU spokeswoman Gail Glover said that the Events Center had been used as a shelter once previously, during the flooding in 2006.
Officials from the Red Cross, University and County Department of Health were there to organize the shelter and tend to those who needed assistance or medical care. Tables were set up in a corner of the Events Center’s upper concourse so that everyone sheltering in the building overnight could register with the Red Cross.
Once checked in, they were escorted downstairs to the Events Center’s main floor, where a few dozen chairs and a handful of cots were set up. Food provided to the Red Cross by Sodexo, such as chips, fruits, peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, coffee and water bottles, was available.
By 9 p.m., a long line made up of dozens of shelter-seekers had formed to wait to check in with one of just nine Red Cross staffers handling the registration. More than 100 others sat in folding chairs set up as a waiting area near the Events Center’s main doors.
People of all ages were among those seeking shelter, but most were elderly. Many used walkers or wheelchairs, and they required assistance with things like plugging in oxygen tanks, filling out forms, obtaining water and using the bathroom. The initial backlog of people waiting to check in created problems, with many of the old or infirm taking seats in folding chairs brought to them at their place in line.
Josephine Edwards, 91, of the Woodburn Court 1 apartments in Binghamton — one of the Downtown buildings evacuated Wednesday — said she saw many neighbors from her building taking refuge in the Events Center.
“I was here in 2006 also, and both times the people here could not be nicer and more helpful,” Edwards said.
Frustrations ran high among others, however, about what they saw as an unnecessary evacuation, confusing directives and congestion they encountered within the Events Center.
“You can put me in the irate column,” said John Standish, a resident of the 24 Isabelle St. apartments. “I was evacuated in 2006 too, and my building was fine then. It has an emergency generator, and I live on the eighth floor. Nothing was going to happen to me.”
Hegy addressed the crowd of evacuees on the upper concourse of the Events Center around 9:30 p.m. via bullhorn.
“We’re clearly overwhelmed at the present time,” Hegy said. “Resources are stretched thin. We’ll do our best to get the check-in system moving quickly.”
James Van Voorst, BU’s vice president for administration who was on the scene at the Events Center, said that the University was responsible for making the facility ready to serve as a shelter, but that the Red Cross would take charge of getting evacuees and others set up and of providing assistance to those who needed it.
“We are an evacuation center for the region. We are working with the Red Cross and doing the best we can to make the facility as comfortable as possible,” Van Voorst said. “It amazes me how fast our team can have this building ready to shelter folks.”
Glover said that the University’s Emergency Response Team, which includes officials from Physical Facilities, Environmental Health and Safety, BU’s New York State University Police and the BU Counseling Center among other administrative units, met at 2 p.m. Wednesday to prepare and organize the school’s response to the downpour and possible flooding.
According to Glover, the Broome County Emergency Operations Center contacted the University later in the afternoon to ask that the Event Center be prepared as a shelter from flooding for people in the Binghamton area.
David Hubeny, the emergency manager for BU’s New York State University Police, sent out a Rave Alert system text message to students and staff at 4:45 p.m. Wednesday stating that the Events Center “will be opening as a shelter effective at 6 p.m. tonight.”
Physical Facilities staff laid down tarp on the Event Center’s basketball court, and they helped to bring in extra folding tables and chairs.
Van Voorst said that evacuees who required greater medical attention were being placed in the West Gym.
“It’s difficult to anticipate numbers,” Van Voorst said. “We had between 1,600 and 1,700 people in the Events Center in 2006, and that was our maximum capacity.”
Dr. Chris Ryan, the Broome County Health Department director who was also on scene, said that the Health Department was responsible for sheltering and managing the needs of people with significant medical issues. According to him, there were at least “a half-dozen” nurses and one other doctor besides himself at the Event Center on Wednesday night.
“No nursing homes were evacuated here to Binghamton University, because we don’t have the right kind of equipment and facilities here to care for them,” he explained. “But a big issue is people coming quickly form home who did not bring their medications with them.”
A Harpur’s Ferry Ambulance Service emergency medical technician, who would not give his name because he was not authorized to speak to press, said that there were 15 total Harpur’s Ferry emergency medical technicians at the Events Center on Wednesday night, and that every other member of the student ambulance service was officially on stand-by.
“We are ready and available to transport anyone to the hospital who needs to be taken there,” the EMT said. “But inside [the Events Center] is the Red Cross’s show, they are the ones providing assistance and triage.”