The Daily Gamecock

Pastides weathers the storm: USC President talks hard decisions in the flood

USC President Harris Pastides has had a busy week. As the head of one of Columbia’s largest organizations, he’s been deeply involved in the city’s decisions as it recovers from heavy flooding — and he has to take care of his students, too.

Going into the weekend of Oct. 2 — the weekend of Hurricane Joaquin — Pastides didn’t expect anything too far out of the ordinary. Hurricane Joaquin was moving further out into the Atlantic, which calmed him down. But on Oct. 4, in drought-ridden Los Angeles with his wife, Pastides got word of the devastation in Columbia. It was beyond anything he had imagined.

“We were thinking of a hurricane event, but instead we got a one in a thousand year flood,” he said.

Returning to Columbia that Monday, Pastides went straight to the “command center” — a council of the university’s head administrators.

“It was a little daunting to me, because the seat at the head of the table was not filled,” he said.

But there was work to do. So, fresh off the plane, Pastides took his seat at the head of the table. Whether there would be classes on Tuesday was the question at hand, but they had to plan further.

“The one thing we agreed was we did not want to start canceling a day at a time, like they do in K-12,” Pastides said. “We didn’t think that was the right thing to do, considering that so many students could depart.”

Deliberating on the coming week of classes, the first concern was water. On Monday, there was no water coming out of university taps — a critical roadblock to opening the university.

After water service returned to campus — albeit under a boil water advisory — the question of keeping the university open became more complicated. 

With some 300,000 bottles of water imported to campus, drinkable water wasn’t the issue — putting pressure on Columbia’s damaged infrastructure was.

“The water pressure when you have 35,000 student and several thousands staff and faculty all using the water — we knew that would be very taxing on the city, on the water supply,” he said.

The water, combined with dangerous conditions around Columbia, clinched the decision.

“It was really a matter of, we didn’t think we could get the faculty and the staff here,” he said.

The decision to move Saturday’s LSU game out of Columbia was similarly difficult. Pastides knew that canceling the game would have consequences, both economically and for Gamecock fans, but the city’s infrastructure just couldn’t handle it.

“Sheriff Lott simply could not remove the officers and the deputies from what they were doing for crowd control,” Pastides said. “We knew there was no option.”

Though tap water is still not drinkable, Pastides is looking forward to a return to relative normalcy as classes resume.

“Hopefully, before midweek, the boil advisory will be lifted. Sheriff Lott … believes the plans for homecoming and for Vanderbilt football team should be okay,” Pastides said. “Most importantly, I think news from the engineers and mayors is that they don’t expect any more breaches of the levees. The pressure of the drinking water appears to be safe.”

Outside the university’s boundaries, Columbia continues to suffer. Pastides has been paying close attention to student aid efforts, impressed by their numbers and enthusiasm.

“I knew the students would respond. I didn’t know the magnitude or the intensity of the volunteer spirit. It is even greater than I expected it to be,” he said.

However, he emphasized, there’s still work to be done. USC may be back on schedule, but the flood will be affecting Columbia for a long time to come.

“People think the worst part of the flood is in the short term — you know, the earth-moving equipment and the moving into shelters and the rescue — that’s not really where students will be most helpful,” Pastides said. “That’ll be in the weeks and months ahead. Fall break, if students are able to stay and volunteer — there’ll be a lot of work to do.”