Fortifying the 40 Acres

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No bombs went off, but there was fallout. At a noontime press conference on Friday, looking frazzled and like a man who spent a rainy Friday morning making decisions about a bomb threat on a campus where at least 69,000 people live and work, UT President William Powers Jr. assured reporters that, had bombs gone off, students would have been unharmed. The press conference was Powers’ first and only public appearance after UT used text messages, Facebook, UT’s emergency web site and sirens to warn confused students and staff about “threats on campus,” requiring they “evacuate all buildings and get as far away from the buildings as possible.” At the subsequent gathering before reporters, Powers offered mostly muddled rationalizations for his administration’s actions in response to the bomb threat when more explanation about the threat itself was still needed.

For our own protection, we are told, few details are being shared about the nature of the threat called into the University’s general number at 8:35 a.m. on Friday. The caller warned  that multiple bombs were set to detonate in multiple buildings on UT’s campus starting in 90 minutes, or around 10:05 a.m. After 75 minutes of evaluating the threat, the administration decided to call for an evacuation of all campus buildings. Within moments, at roughly 9:53 a.m., students heard sirens and received the two text messages.

Students on campus at the time say confusion reigned and questions abounded. What was the threat? Where was the threat? How far away from buildings was far enough? What if you lived on campus? Where should one go? A commenter on the site Reddit described his reaction to UT’s alerts: “I hauled ass down Jester and headed towards downtown in my pajamas, fearing for gunmen or bombs, and at the same time fearing this would occur downtown. I didn’t understand at the time why people were just gathered across the street, to me evacuate campus meant go as far away as you can ... ”

Around campus immediately after the alerts, as rain drizzled, thousands of students formed a sea of umbrellas and made their way down slick streets. When they reached what they thought a safe distance, a block away for some, and miles away for others, they loitered, looking and listening for some authoritative direction on what to do next.

At his press conference, Powers clarified that UT never intended for students to evacuate the campus, just the buildings. But anyone who received the text messages could tell you that was not made clear.

Also at the press conference, Powers spoke of room for improvement as if the morning’s activities had been a drill. But Friday’s bomb threat was not a drill, and those text messages should have been drafted in preparation for an event like Friday’s. It is very clear they were not.

 In Sept. 2010, a masked Colton Tooley walked into the Perry Castenada Library with a loaded AK-47. Tooley died by suicide on the sixth floor of that building, and the University administrators and police reacted quickly and kept the UT community well informed with texts and officers on the campus’ periphery. We hope administrators will make an effort to restore confidence in their readiness to handle emergency situations, which unfortunately seem all too common in our college experience.