Words by: Stephen Orbanek
Photography by: Betsy Manning and Joseph V. Labolito
Produced by: Edirin Oputu
View the story with images at: https://news.temple.edu/news/2021-09-22/road-recovery-begins
It's the late afternoon of Wednesday, Sept. 1, and Benjamin Snyder, manager of the Tyler School of Art and Architecture's Greenhouse Education and Research Complex at Temple University's Ambler Campus, is about to head home for the evening.
The skies have started to open up, and the wind has picked up, too. Despite it just being 5:30 p.m., the entire area has been blanketed with an eerie darkness, akin to a scene from the middle of the night, rather than the late afternoon.
"You could tell that something was different and that this was not just a normal windstorm," Snyder said.
Snyder was in his car at 5:42 p.m., when his suspicions were confirmed. It was then that the remnants of Hurricane Ida, an EF2-level tornado, barreled through the center of the Ambler Campus. Winds reached as high as 130 mph. Hundreds of trees were either uprooted or destroyed entirely. Windows in many of the campus' buildings were blown out. Almost every building sustained some level of roof damage, including West Hall, which had the entire roof of its east and west wings removed.
As he was on his way home, Snyder decided to call an audible. Rather than ensuring his own safety, he turned around and headed back to campus.
"When you're a manager of a greenhouse and you maintain 1,600 tropical plants and then a tornado hits, your first thought is to make sure that they're all OK," Snyder said. "My response was, 'OK, this is what happened. What do we do next?'"
Snyder arrived to find the campus in disarray or "chaos," as he described it. However, while some of the greenhouse's windows were damaged, all 1,600 species within the building survived the storm. A big reason for that is because of Snyder, who made sure to move plants and get them upright following the storm.
It's one of the many silver linings that the Ambler community is finding in the wake of the tornado hitting campus.
"There is only so much that you can do," said Vicki Lewis McGarvey, vice provost for University College and director of the Ambler Campus. "The tornado happened, and there are only two ways for us to go from here: up or down. We're choosing to focus on the positives."
Shelter from the storm
Arguably no one experienced the storm more firsthand than John Harre, a graduate student in Tyler's Landscape Architecture (MLArch) program, which is offered at the Ambler Campus.
Harre is a resident assistant for the Pennsylvania Department of Conservations and Natural Resources (DCNR)'s state park rangers residing at Ambler while attending the federal Park Ranger Law Enforcement Academy, which operates out of Temple's Ambler Campus. When the tornado hit, he and his residents were inside West Hall.
"We could tell from the noises outside that things were getting bad. We did not know that it was a tornado, but we heard trees moving. Thankfully, we were able to move everyone to a more secure location within West Hall," Harre said.
Harre stayed with the students throughout the night in the north wing of West Hall, which sustained minimal damage. He was also there to welcome and provide shelter to additional students, who were traveling to Ambler from Main Campus via bus and got stuck on roadways.
Throughout the process, he was in constant communication with Ambler Campus leadership and stayed on top of any further developments with the storm. In the early morning, both Harre and the remaining students and park ranger cadets were able to go home.
On the morning of Wednesday, Sept. 15, Temple's Ambler Campus reopened for students and in-person classes less than two weeks after the tornado hit campus.
It's not an understatement to say that a Herculean effort went into making the reopening possible.
"Every day, we have had multiple tree companies plus restoration and roofing companies on campus," McGarvey said. "Our own Facilities Management and Campus Operations staff have also been immensely helpful."
The facilities department and faculty and staff members worked tirelessly to prepare Ambler for reopening. They worked through long days and both nights and weekends, removing debris, patching up buildings and navigating through any logistical challenges.
The Temple University Police Department has also played a major role in the recovery efforts. Officers worked round the clock, staying on campus for up to 16 hours a day for three weeks straight.
This is not easy work. It's the type of work that requires everyone to pitch in, roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty, but the Ambler Campus community embraced it.
Campus looked different from what students remembered. However, that should be expected of any campus that doubles as an arboretum following a direct tornado hit.
The most important thing was that students were back and enjoying a return to the in-person experience that they missed for so long due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In a MLArch course, students discussed the damage to campus, but also focused on the positives.
"It was hard to see today, being back on campus for the first time in two weeks," one student said. "But I also see the positives. I see how this can be something that we study over time."
"We follow nature"
Historically, Ambler Campus has always been tied to nature, forests and gardening. It was founded in 1911 as the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women, and its horticulture programs have been a hallmark of the campus since Temple acquired it in 1958.
While campus may look a bit different these days, its identity remains intact.
One of the areas that was heavily damaged by the tornado is the Old Growth Forest, which resides across Meetinghouse Road on the other side of campus. Aesthetically, it might not be as easy on the eyes as it once was as the majority of its trees have tumbled over from the storm. But from a research standpoint, the storm might have actually been a positive.
Over the next several months and years, Amy Freestone, director of the Temple Ambler Field Station and an associate professor of biology, and her students and fellow researchers plan to study the forest.
"The fact that both a hurricane and a tornado hit this region of the U.S. is uncommon, and that's something we need to monitor and understand. There is so much that we can now learn about climate change and other things from this," Freestone said. "We are now a disturbance lab, and we have some really interesting research questions ahead of us. These are not the questions that we expected to study, but we're biologists, and we follow nature. This is where nature has decided to take us."
Silver linings can also be found at Ambler Arboretum of Temple University, which is directed by Kathy Salisbury.
While hundreds of trees were lost due to the storm, Salisbury has been able to still find every species of plant or tree that is taught on campus with the exception of just six. There are also opportunities for new hands-on lab experiences. For instance, landscape management students will now be able to work on a complete lawn renovation.
"The Ambler Arboretum has been a special place for so many for so long, and it will still be that. It will just be a bit different than before," Salisbury said. "We're continuing to find bright spots every single day. Initially, it looked like everything was lost but then as we clean up, we continue to find what has been saved. There is lots of opportunity to reimagine space, and it's such a great educational opportunity. We can speak to what happened here, we can speak to climate change and we can speak to resiliency."
Ambler Relief Fund
While recovery is already underway at Temple University's Ambler Campus, the reality is that it will take many years, even decades, for the campus and its arboretum to fully recover.
Faculty and staff have already started to replant different species of trees and plants, and that process will continue throughout the fall and next spring.
To help accelerate the recovery, an Ambler Relief Fund has been established. Donations to the fund will help Ambler get back on its feet, even as maintenance crews continue their efforts to return the campus to a place of learning and reflection for the Temple community.