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Cuyamaca College: News Release

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News Release 

CONTACT:   Della Elliott, GCCCD Public Information
  della.elliott@gcccd.edu; (619) 644-7690                                                                                          

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                                                                            Nov. 5, 2007

                                                                       

Grossmont, Cuyamaca colleges pitch in during wildfires

Governor among visitors of Cuyamaca’s local assistance center

The new hours for the Rancho San Diego Local Assistance Center at Cuyamaca College are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays. 

EL CAJON – Air-quality concerns and the impact of the recent devastating wildfires closed Grossmont and Cuyamaca colleges for a week, along with most school campuses throughout San Diego County, but the two East County community colleges were far from being the ghost towns that many school sites had become.

The fires, which charred 665 square miles, destroyed about 1,200 homes in San Diego County, and sent hundreds of thousands fleeing for their lives, ignited Sunday, Oct. 21. By 1 p.m. Monday, as ashes from the massive conflagrations continued to flutter through the air, the campuses had officially closed. That’s when wildfire assistance at both campuses kicked into high gear.

Responding to a request from the county sheriff, Grossmont College was designated a staging area for local law enforcement, but as the wildfires spread, a mutual aid call was issued and the college was transformed into law enforcement incident command center, said Joel Javines, public safety director for the college district. Police cruisers and other law enforcement vehicles began arriving at the college in droves as police and sheriff’s agencies from San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino and Orange counties, as well as the U.S. Border Patrol, reported for their assignments assisting in the largest mass evacuation for a natural disaster in the state’s history. In addition to helping in the evacuations, the agencies provided security to the vacated areas.

According to figures from the San Diego Association of Governments, or SANDAG, 515,000 San Diego County residents received evacuation notices as whole communities – from mountain hamlets to heavily populated suburban neighborhoods – were being consumed by the raging fires. Wide swaths of land timber dry from an incessant drought and the strong, seasonal winds that blow in from the desert were a recipe for disaster.

The college district’s own public safety and community service officers remained on duty at the colleges, providing additional security and traffic control during a week that would draw many outsiders to the campuses due to fallout from the fires. Also remaining on campus at both colleges were grounds, maintenance and custodial staff, who cleaned restrooms, emptied trash, maintained grounds and parking lots, and in preparation for the reopening of the colleges, cleaned ventilation systems and areas where ash lingered. At Grossmont, Tim Flood, director of campus facilities and operations supervised the effort. At Cuyamaca, overseeing similar tasks was David Suter, a facilities coordinator.

Cuyamaca assists victims

Cuyamaca College was recruited into action by San Diego County, which set up a disaster relief service center at the campus, one of four such sites throughout the county. The one-stop local assistance centers, or LACs, are where government and non-profit agencies, insurance company representatives, local utilities and scores of other service providers set up shop to provide recovery assistance to fire victims. By Wednesday, Oct. 31, nearly 14,300 fire victims representing more than 5,400 households had sought help at the temporary centers. The LACs will remain as long as their services are needed, said Derryl Acosta, public information officer for the county of San Diego.

The LAC at Cuyamaca – the only one of 11 centers statewide to be set up at a college – had at its peak almost 50 agencies represented, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Small Business Administration, Red Cross, IRS, state Department of Motor Vehicles, and the Salvation Army. It assisted 1,751 people representing 777 families between Oct. 25 and Oct. 31, said Janice Graham, an LAC coordinator.

Fittingly established within the confines of the campus’ One-Stop Student Services Center, the Cuyamaca LAC has been praised by government officials as the gold standard for cooperation and efficiency.

Cuyamaca College’s own faculty and staff, along with college district staff, were quick to respond, helping the county open the LAC Oct. 25, just two days after the district was approached with the idea.

It took about a day and a half to set up the infrastructure, including wiring for more than 100 computers that were brought in for use by FEMA and other agencies, said Arleen Satele, Cuyamaca’s vice president of administrative services. She and Henri Migala, executive dean of institutional advancement, were the college’s key liaisons to the LAC and headed Cuyamaca’s participation in the multiagency operation.

The college district’s public safety, information systems and public information offices also worked throughout the LAC’s first week in operation, providing security, traffic control, technical support and communications assistance.

Governing Board President Rick Alexander commended the colleges for again responding to the community’s clarion call for help at a time of disaster. In 2003, firefighters from multiple jurisdictions relied on Grossmont College as a place to shower, rest and strategize. Cuyamaca College faculty, staff and students collected and distributed thousands of dust mask respirators four years ago and again, during this year’s wildfires.

“Our campuses are community colleges in every sense of the word,” Alexander said. “We have always responded to community needs of affordable higher education and workforce training. This time, the community needs were much more immediate. I am grateful that the colleges and district responded as quickly and as efficiently as they did.”

Governor’s visit

On Sunday, Oct. 28, the college took a turn in the national limelight, when Gov. Schwarzenegger arrived for a tour, followed by a phalanx of reporters and photographers, all jockeying for position under the watchful eyes of the governor’s security detail.

“… the important part of this whole tragedy is follow-through, and I think that our one-stop shops is one of those follow-throughs, where everyone is together here under one roof, and where we try to provide services for the people,” the governor said. “I think that to me, what this whole week is about…is to let people know they’re not by themselves, that we are here, the locals, the state, and also the federal government, that we are all working together.”

Chancellor Omero Suarez said this cohesive spirit is also apparent throughout the college district.

“It is typical of this district and college community to embrace opportunities to assist victims of a heart-wrenching catastrophe,” said Chancellor Omero Suarez. “Our own faculty, staff and students were also personally impacted, with about eight losing their homes. One instructor lost her home, then had the family dog stolen out of a borrowed car. Fortunately, it was returned the following day.”

The chancellor added that the district has revived its fire victims assistance fund through the auspices of the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District Auxiliary. A district task force will oversee the distribution of the monies to address various needs, including replacing textbooks and other educational materials lost in the fires.

Dr. Geraldine M. Perri, Cuyamaca College president, said that a portion of the student services center was quickly converted into office space for the LAC.

“With our cabinet and incredible facilities crew, we were able to identify space … to meet the needs of the county, state, federal and other services to be provided to fire victims,” she said. “The services offered at the local assistance center range from providing emergency housing vouchers, allocating permits for rebuilding, trauma counseling (for fire victims), food for animals and other needed services.”

Among the college staff helping at the LAC were Rick Wilson, the program coordinator for the Cuyamaca College’s environmental health and safety program, and Vivien Bogue, manager of Cuyamaca’s Regional Environmental Business Resource Assistance Center, or REBRAC, which provides training to businesses requiring compliance with state and federal environmental health and safety regulations.

Wilson and Bogue, along with Henri Migala, have so far distributed nearly 6,000 dust mask respirators for those affected by the ashes and other pollutants from the fires. The respirators were paid for by REBRAC, the Cuyamaca College Foundation and Wachovia Bank.

Also pitching in has been Cuyamaca College’s child development program, which staffs the childcare provided at the LAC.

 “We were up and running with faculty, CDC staff and teachers, student volunteers and family members of college staff when the LAC opened Thursday,” said coordinator Kristin Zink, explaining that Sheridan De Wolfe, child development program coordinator at Grossmont College, had contacted Cuyamaca about setting up the childcare service since her husband is the county person in charge of the LAC childcare sites region-wide.

 “I think what has impressed me most is twofold – one, how comfortable the children have been in staying in the rooms…our CD folks have created play centers for the children with art materials, dolls, blocks, books, etc. One room is more appropriate for older children with board games, video games, and even a Wii (game system) donated by a wonderful high-school student for the duration of the LAC operation. The other impression I have is how grateful the parents are. They have been so appreciative of having a safe and fun place for their children to stay while they go through the myriad tables and tons of paperwork.”

Linda Haar, director of the college’s child development center, said more than 30 staff, faculty and students from the center have helped staff the temporary childcare service, with about 20-25 children supervised on busier days. About 150 were cared for during the first week of operation, she said.

To help boost the spirits of the children and others left homeless or otherwise hard hit by the wildfires, some San Diego Chargers players made a surprise visit to Cuyamaca last Monday to unload two truckloads of goods donated by fans who attended the previous day’s football game at Qualcomm Stadium.

Among those distributing the items was the college president, who said the outpouring of support from the college has been tremendous.

Perri said helping the community during the catastrophic fires has been an opportunity for the college to reciprocate the community’s support in 2002 of a $207 million facilities bond measure that has made the recent spate of construction at both colleges possible.

“In 2002, our community came to our aid by overwhelmingly supporting our (Prop. R) bond measure that has allowed us to build the beautiful new buildings we are all enjoying on campus. And serving our community and doing the right thing is nothing less than the Cuyamaca way.”

The Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District serves the East County region of San Diego County and beyond to the Imperial County and Mexican borders. Grossmont College at 8800 Grossmont College Drive in El Cajon and Cuyamaca College at 900 Rancho San Diego Parkway in Rancho San Diego, serve a total 26,000 students per semester. For more information about the colleges, go to www.grossmont.edu and www.cuyamaca.edu 

Intergovernmental Relations, Economic Development, and Public Information

8800 Grossmont College Drive  El Cajon, CA 92020-1799  Phone 619-644-7573 Fax 619-644-7924; www.gcccd.edu

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