JACKSON, Tenn. (AP) It will be hard for Union University freshmen Ericka King and Erin Palm to get used to the empty space where dorms once stood on their campus.
They want the campus to return to the way it was before the Feb. 5 tornado that damaged the Hurt and Watters student housing complexes. But they know that it won’t.
“With the buildings gone, it makes the campus look bigger,” Palm said.
The Miller Clock Tower, located in the center of Union’s campus, remains intact. Seeing it comforted King.
“It was good to return and see the tower still standing,” she said. “It’s the heart of Union. And it’s where graduation is held — where I’ll graduate one day.”
By the time King and Palm graduate, they will have known three different Unions — the campus they fell in love with as freshmen, the campus scarred by the tornado and the reconstructed campus. The blank space left by the dorms that were destroyed will soon be filled with construction equipment as the rebuilding begins.
The damage to the residence halls has forced the university to shift a five-year construction plan to focus on storm repairs and student housing. Plans to build new dorms in phases have been scrapped for a more immediate, larger-scale project. Longer-term planning has been set aside and will not be revisited until next year.
The tornado struck Union’s campus in the third year of the university’s 2010 five-year construction plan.
“We had completed 75 percent of our goals,” President David Dockery said.
Union had raised $102 million of its $110 million goal in the 2010 plan, built the White Hall science building and the Fesmire Field House, and began a nurse anesthetist program. The university will offer pharmacy and master’s degree social work programs this fall.
Another part of the 2010 plan is to expand the Coburn Dining Hall, a project that is under way. A metal frame for the expansion remained intact after the tornado, Dockery said.
Union stopped construction on a hotel-style residential complex that was planned to house 100 students. Instead, the university will build a complex of 14 apartment-style buildings that will replace the Hurt and Watters complexes lost in the tornado. Site work on the new dorms, which will cost more than $30 million, began in February.
“We had planned to rebuild the entire residential life area,” Dockery said. “The good news is that we’ll have a new residential area by 2009. The challenge is so significant that we have to respond quickly. We can’t lose momentum.”
Union had planned to build an academic building dedicated to the pharmacy program.
“The pharmacy building was scheduled to be complete in 2010, but that timetable has changed,” said Dockery, who added that the building would be considered after storm repairs and the new housing complex are complete.
Beyond 2010, Union planned to build a new library and administration building, a new art facility, another classroom building and a new building on the Germantown campus. All of the plans are on hold until the university begins to look beyond storm recovery, Dockery said.
Union officials are hopeful the tornado won’t negatively affect the university’s student population.
“We’re working very hard on the recruitment for the fall semester,” Dockery said. “We’re on pace for about 500 freshmen, 150 transfers and 500 graduate and non-traditional students.”
Dockery said he’s optimistic about enrollment in light of the number of students participating in the university’s Scholar’s Weekend, when students are invited to compete for academic scholarships.
“We’re expecting more than 75 students,” he said. “We’re hopeful that is a strong indicator of what is to come in the fall.”
To participate in Scholar’s Weekend, a student must score 31 on the ACT and be at or near the top of his high school class, Dockery said.
Union officials set an enrollment goal of 3,500 students by 2010. Dockery said the university had 3,310 students in the fall 2007 semester, which he said is ahead of schedule.
“I don’t want to be presumptive in any way, but I am hopeful that we will make our enrollment goals by 2010,” he said. “We might have an interruption in the pace of our growth for a year, but we will trust the Lord to help us as we move forward.”
All the talk of a changing campus doesn’t bother Union freshman Nathan Fisher.
Fisher lived in the Watters complex but was not hurt when the building collapsed.
“As long as the close-knit environment doesn’t change, they can do anything to campus physically,” he said.
The idea of new dorms is exciting for freshman Damitria White, who lived in the Hurt complex.
“I think the campus is going to look nice when I graduate,” she said.
Members of Union’s board of trustees, architects and contractors approved a two-story quadrangle dormitory complex. It will consist of four quads, with four buildings in each quad.
Two of the quads will open for the fall 2008 semester and the remaining buildings in spring 2009. Fourteen of the buildings will house students, and the final two will be a men’s commons building and a women’s commons building.
Dockery said the new buildings would be larger, stronger and safer than the old buildings. They will be reinforced for safety and include safe rooms in the first-floor apartments.
The safe rooms would accommodate eight students in case of an emergency, such as a tornado.
The new dorms will be built on the site where the Watters and Hurt complexes stood. Both complexes sustained heavy storm damage and were demolished the week after the tornado.
Two of the quads will be in the shape of “U U,” which represents Union University. The other two quads will be square shaped.
All of the buildings in the quad will have interior courtyards for picnics and other activities, Dockery said.
According to an artist’s rendering, the new buildings will provide 712 beds and give the campus additional housing for students.
The color of the outside brick and architecture will match White and Jennings halls, which are the newer buildings on Union’s campus.
The Feb. 5 tornado marks the third time Union’s campus has been hit by a storm. Previous storms have occurred in 2001 and 2002.
“We can’t live in fear,” Dockery said. “It would be paralyzing to live in fear of the next one. We have to plan as carefully as we can and move forward one day at a time.”
Many Union students have said they weren’t taking the tornado warnings seriously on Feb. 5.
Now, students say, they will take heed of weather warnings.
“I’m from Memphis, and the tornado sirens are always going off there, but there’s never a tornado,” said Zachery Mosby, a freshman, who lived in the Watters complex.
During the storm, he walked to the Lexington Inn, a restaurant in the Barefoot Student Union building, to check on his fiance, Damitria White, who was working in the restaurant.
“I ended up in the cooler with her and her co-workers,” Mosby said. “I didn’t know how serious the storm was.”
Though freshman Erin Palm wants to hold on to the nostalgia of the Union campus she saw last year, she’s excited about the new dorms.
“The new plan looks awesome,” she said. “A lot of us are glad to be back, and now we’ve got to adjust to longer schedules and for some of us commuting to campus. But I’m proud to be a Union student.”