Students were evacuated from the Campus Recreation Center and the Phyllis P. Marshall Center basement Tuesday afternoon after a sudden thunderstorm caused extensive flooding on campus.
The flooding, described by one staffer as the worst he had seen in his 21-year tenure at USF, caused no injuries, according to University Police Lt. Meg Ross.
Portions of campus roads were also flooded, but no car accidents were reported at press time.
There were also unconfirmed reports that an SUV was stuck at the loading dock behind the Marshall Center following the onset of the floodwater.
In the Marshall Center and at Campus Rec, students and University staff scrambled to contend with the unwelcome waters to prevent accidents and damage to expensive machinery.
Danny Rabinowitz, who works at WBUL, was in the middle of a broadcast when water seeped under the Marshall Center basement’s doors and inched into the studio, posing a danger to the radio station’s equipment.
“I acted really quickly,” he said, describing how he worked to plug the space under WBUL’s door. “I grabbed the foam fingers and shirts to stop the water from coming in.”
At Campus Rec, from 350 to 500 people were evacuated from the building after the lower level and portions of the second level were flooded, disrupting routine workouts, swimming and intramural sports.
The main goals for the Campus Rec staff, said Assistant Director of Campus Recreation Chris Marks, was to prevent students from slipping on slick floors and protect the wooden athletic courts.
An added inconvenience for Campus Rec, however, was a mechanical malfunction that threatened the indoor swimming pool.
One of the two pool pumps stopped working, though it is unclear whether the failure was the result of flooding or a lightning strike related to the thunderstorms. As a result, the pool started to drain, and the water level dropped nearly a foot before employees stabilized the pump’s operation.
Preventing the pool from draining is crucial, said Kimberly Mallard, assistant director of Campus Recreation, because the bottom of an empty swimming pool can crack. Fixing cracks would require expensive refurbishing and repainting and inconvenient pool closures, not to mention the cost of refilling the pool with water.
In the scuba equipment room, water gushed out of a floor drain, Marks said.
“It came up and out, almost like a geyser.”
About 50 members of the Campus Rec staff coped with the flood by soaking up water with mops, pushing it toward drains and sucking it up with wet/dry vacuums.
Campus Rec staffers said the center had flooded before, but never to the extent seen Tuesday.
“We’ve had our drains back up before, but it’s never done this,” Mallard said. “This is not normal.”
Director of Campus Recreation Eric Hunter, who has worked at USF for 21 years, agreed.
“I’ve never seen it happen this bad before,” he said.
Immediately after the evacuation, students were allowed to remain in the vestibule of the gym, but were later asked to stand outside after staffers felt the presence of students led to confusion over whether the gym was closed.
USF alumnus Eddie Lorett, who managed to wrap up his workout before the evacuation, said the prospect of walking in the rain was more of an inconvenience than evacuating.
“Thank God I’d just finished,” he said. “You’re kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place because you don’t want to get soaked.”
Asked about her reaction to the evacuation and Campus Rec’s closing, sophomore education major Suzanne Shields commented, “Grr.”
“I don’t know what else to say,” said Shields, who didn’t have a chance to work out. “It’s ridiculous.”
Campus Rec reopened at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. Mallard said Campus Rec had seen weather reports of possible additional storms and flooding Tuesday evening, but said staffers will post news of additional closings on Campus Rec’s voicemail.
“If we close again, then we will put it up there,” she said.
The thunderstorms that caused flooding on campus affected Hillsborough County and much of central Florida, resulting in mild flooding and hail, according to the National Weather Service.
With reporting from Cynthia D. Roldan.