I intended to write this blog about the wonderful Celebrity Artist Series performances on Saturday by Cirque Le Masque. My wife, Robbie, and I attended the evening performance along with a full house of more than 1,600 in Haas Center for the Arts, Mitrani Hall. The afternoon performance was also to a full house with many visitors here for Parents and Family Weekend. The cirque put on outstanding performances of beauty, comedy, grace, strength and gravity-defying acrobatics.
However, I need to use this blog instead to review the impact of the terrible fire that destroyed three buildings on West Main Street on Sunday morning. I received a call at about 6:45 a.m. informing me that several buildings that provide student housing were on fire. When I arrived at the scene about 7:30 a.m. the buildings were totally involved in the fire. I was relieved to learn from a firefighter that, to their knowledge, no students were injured and they were confident that everyone was out of the buildings.
After walking around the scene and talking with people, including two owners of the burning buildings, I learned that Professor George Agbango had been called by an international student displaced by the fire. He had already taken a group of displaced students to campus and they were being assisted by Linda Sowash and her Residence Life staff. I gathered up two other displaced international students and arranged for a student with a 3-month-old daughter to bring her family to campus. The residence life staff was doing an outstanding job of comforting the students, arranging for on-campus housing, meal cards, replacement student IDs, etc.
Later in the morning Professor Agbango and I took the group of students from campus to the American Red Cross office. They were ready for the group and promptly processed them while providing coffee and snacks. Other students and non-students also found their way there for assistance. When the students went back to campus, they were provided with emergency supply kits and, most important, debit cards to purchase some new clothing, coats and shoes. This was essential because the students had escaped the fire with only the clothes they had on, in most cases pajamas, sweatshirts and sandals. Many had grabbed their cell phones and almost nothing else.
By mid-afternoon most displaced students were settled into temporary campus housing. Dr. Agbango and Dr. Sharma, director of International Education, were ready to take the 10 or so international students to Wal-Mart to shop for clothes. Parents or friends of most of the Pennsylvania students had arrived to assist them. Some students chose to room with friends in town. A few who were away for the weekend had not yet returned, although it appeared that all had been informed of the disaster.
As the week begins, we have been assisting the displaced students -- our current count is 28 -- in regaining some normalcy in their lives. Academic and Student Affairs staff have contacted the students’ professors to inform them of the stressful situation and ask for reasonable accommodations. Replacement textbooks are available on loan and the Husky Emergency Fund is available to assist with other necessities, including school supplies. Dr. Sharma is in contact with the embassies of four countries and our State Department to expedite the replacement of passports, visas and other essential documents for the international students. Various campus and community organizations are arranging for donated clothing and other necessities. The county emergency management office will have a disaster assistance site in the courthouse on Wednesday to expedite replacement of driver’s licenses, birth certificates, etc.
I was impressed by the bravery and fortitude of our students and the non-students who thankfully escaped without injury, but lost almost everything in the fire. I was equally impressed by how the university and town communities came together promptly and effectively to assist all of the victims of the fire. Our shared response to this disaster is another example of how Bloomsburg is a great place to live, learn and work.