|People eat at Reber-Thomas Dining Hall during the power outage. More than 15,000 meals were served. Adults ate for $3; children and emergency service personnel were free..|
When a destructive derecho swept through Central Virginia in late June, Liberty University emerged as a key player in offering relief for affected residents from throughout the region.
The devastating storm, which packed crippling winds, toppled trees that snapped power lines, and left up to 72 percent of Lynchburg without electricity during some of the hottest days of a sweltering summer.
For at least a week after the storm, temperatures in the region often climbed above the 100 degree mark.
Without electricity, home air conditioners became lifeless and local residents were unable to perform basic life-sustaining activities such as cooking meals or washing their clothes.
Liberty and its partners — local governments, the American Red Cross, Sodexo, and the ministries of Thomas Road Baptist Church — provided comfort to those afflicted in the wake of the storm.
Because of its decade-long growth spurt, Liberty, which maintained its power, was in a unique position to offer shelter to those afflicted and to out-of-state power crews who responded to the emergency.
Liberty opened 14 residence halls, its dining facilities, pools, and laundromats to those who were trying to beat the heat. About 2,000 people were housed in residence halls; about 100 were out-of-area electrical workers unable to find hotel rooms when they arrived in town to respond to the widespread outage.
The Liberty Mountain Snowflex Centre opened for the public to enjoy free skiing and tubing, and the LaHaye Ice Center welcomed visitors with free ice skating.
“Liberty’s students have always been heavily involved in community service,” said Liberty President and Chancellor Jerry Falwell, Jr. “They donate hundreds of thousands of hours every year to the local community. This summer, Liberty, as an institution, took an active role in disaster relief. The campus is located near a main electrical transmission line that is rarely compromised by storms. We consider it a privilege to put into practice our Christian beliefs.”
Liberty Police Chief Richard Hinkley said God took an active hand in preparing the university to respond to the storm.
Just two days before the derecho hit, Liberty officials had met with representatives of local government and the American Red Cross to discuss how all could mutually respond to natural disasters. State government has been pushing localities to develop emergency response plans because of increased tornado activity throughout Virginia.
After the June storm hit, both Liberty and Thomas Road Baptist Church opened their facilities as cooling centers for those who had lost air conditioning for their homes.
“As things progressed following the storm, it became evident that people were going to need a place to stay,” Hinkley said.
It also became evident that local emergency rooms were going to need a backup venue to assist an excess of patients with medical needs. Both Liberty and TRBC offered use of their facilities.
Centra Health, another key local company, provided personnel to maintain a temporary emergency response medical center. The American Red Cross started referring patients to the Liberty-Thomas Road campus, Hinkley said.
“This by far was the most expansive emergency response we have ever had,” Hinkley said. “I think when you have an emergency of this magnitude people just pitch in and help out. It is just a matter of talking to one another.”
Lee Beaumont, Liberty’s vice president of auxiliary services, said the emergency response was a team effort.
“It all goes back to our Christian beliefs,” Beaumont said. “We are supposed to look out for one another.”
The post-storm response included meals at the dining hall for $3 (free for children and emergency personnel) and free ice to those who needed it.
Lori Madden, district manager for Sodexo, Liberty’s dining services provider, said the dining hall had planned to close for one week, with no students to serve on campus and no camps scheduled. That decision was quickly reversed when she saw the need and her already slim summer crew agreed to stay on.
“I think this has been a beautiful demonstration of ministry for this campus and we are just really happy to be a part of it,” Madden said that week.
More than 15,000 meals were served.
Madden said she met some families who had stocked up with groceries the day before the storm and had already spent their food budget.
“They were really devastated and they didn’t know where to go or what they were going to do to take care of their families,” she said.
Another family had traveled from Illinois with their two daughters who were preparing to be freshmen at Liberty this fall. When their hotel lost power, they were relieved to be able to come to the dining hall to eat, cool down, and make other housing arrangements.
Knowing that many children would come to the dining hall, Madden even went to the store to buy toys and games and set up a kids’ zone. Children’s movies were shown on a big-screen TV.
Lyn Mathews, a Boonsboro resident, ate with her two boys at the dining hall.
“I knew how big it was and that we would have the space for the boys to hang out,” she said. “The food is a nice addition — of course we don’t have anything in our fridge, it’s all gone. This is a gift. I think this is a great witness, what Liberty has done.”
Much of the success of the storm response came as a result of Liberty employees volunteering extra hours to help with the relief effort, including staff from the Liberty University Police Department, Housing Office, Auxiliary Services, and Field Operations/Facilities, under director Scott Starnes.
A few weeks later, Liberty held a special appreciation luncheon for those employees who went above and beyond their job duties.
Neal Askew, Liberty’s executive vice president, addressed the crowd.
“You didn’t have to do a lot of what you did. You made a lot of people’s lives better,” he told them. “It’s a wonderful thing to be a lighthouse to the community and reach out and help people when they’re in need.”