Sitting on the storm-weary Atlantic Coast, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University was prepared for hurricanes.
But the school, home to one of the nation's top flight and engineering programs, was not ready for the roughly 120 mph winds of a tornado that tore through on Christmas Day, destroying its airplane hangar and hurling Cessnas around campus.
No one was hurt, but it caused as much as $60 million in damages, destroyed 40 of 65 training aircraft and the administration building, and displaced some 200 staff and faculty members.
"Nobody thought a whole lot about tornadoes," said Chancellor Thomas Connolly, who was spending the holiday with his family about 100 miles north in Jacksonville Beach.
He wasn't optimistic after his first tour of the campus, but he said it is recovering quickly.
All 5,000 students have returned, though classes resumed six days later than scheduled.
The school has temporarily replaced its planes with dozens on short-term lease. Students are already up and running in the new planes. With 200 takeoffs and landings each day, the school claims one of the state's busiest airports.
The school is awaiting delivery of several modular buildings that staff could be working out of for a couple years. The main administration building remains boarded. Students have taken to calling it the "Plywood Palace."
Most classrooms weren't damaged, though one building required a new wall after a Cessna was thrown 200 yards and exploded inside. The dry erase boards no longer erase, because of the cleaning agents used to wipe down the rooms.
Connolly said insurance would cover all but about $1 million of the damages, not including the administration building, which is still being assessed. He expected the school's fundraising campaign to more than cover those costs.
Connolly's office has been relocated to a conference room in the student center, which he shares with six other people. The student employment office was operating out of a corner in the cafeteria, and the basketball team is playing home games at Daytona Beach Community College.
The recovery has been aided because there are four major construction projects under way, giving the school instant access to contractors to clear the debris. None of the projects, which include a new fitness center and dormitory, were affected.
All but about 800 of the 10,000 library books soaked in the storm were saved, and about 70 percent of the buildings on campus suffered little or no damage.
Connolly said officials were considering a new administration building anyway. The school was also planning to tear down its hangar and build a new flight operations building - though not quite so soon.
Zack Wilson, a sophomore studying aviation maintenance science, said the campus looked bare on his first day back because the tornado uprooted and destroyed so many plants. Still, Wilson said he was impressed with the quick recovery.
"They did a good job cleaning everything up," he said. "Some of those rooms probably haven't been cleaned that good in 30 years."
On the Net:
Embry-Riddle home page: http://www.erau.edu
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