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Moving in early on hurricane watch

Colleges encourage students to arrive during calm before the storm

Zoe Michas of New York and Hanling Petredean of San Luis Obispo, Calif., carried a chest into their Harvard dorm. Zoe Michas of New York and Hanling Petredean of San Luis Obispo, Calif., carried a chest into their Harvard dorm. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
By Mary Carmichael
Globe Staff / August 26, 2011

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New England colleges are hurriedly rearranging their busy start-of-semester schedules as Hurricane Irene churns toward land, while thousands of students planning to move into dormitories this weekend are adding a new item to their back-to-school shopping lists: rain gear.

Yesterday, on campuses up and down the coast, administrators huddled in meetings, sending out schoolwide bulletins, setting up emergency Twitter feeds, and, in some cases, rounding up students already on the grounds and sending them home.

Mark Collins, senior vice president for administration at Brandeis University, said the college had encouraged its 885 first-year students to arrive Saturday, a day earlier than planned, but was still expecting many to show up on Sunday during the predicted height of the storm.

“People are going to have flight trouble and driving trouble,’’ he said. “There will be a hiccup getting started. But we all just need to be flexible and roll our sleeves up and get done what has to be done.’’

Student leaders in charge of orientation activities, many of whom came to campus weeks ago, tried to figure out how they would welcome new classmates in weather that is anything but welcoming.

Rachel Nelson, a junior leading orientation at Brandeis, said 120 student volunteers were still hoping to help freshmen unpack their belongings Sunday.

“Last year it rained, and we did it anyway,’’ she said. “This year, it’s a hurricane. The show goes on.’’

On the other hand, a few events would have to be canceled, she said. “The outdoor rock climbing wall is scrapped.’’

At Harvard University, an already hectic freshman moving day was expanded yesterday to include all undergraduates, who were not supposed to set up in their residence halls until Saturday morning. The University of Connecticut also shifted its move-in a day earlier and by yesterday was considering canceling much of its orientation.

“There’s so much planning that goes into it that to change it even by a day would be a heavy lift,’’ said spokesman Michael Kirk.

Other schools chose to start fall semester late. Fairfield University, a Connecticut college just north of Long Island Sound, pushed its freshman move-in day from Sunday to Tuesday and told students who were already on campus to leave.

“The eye of the storm will be going through our county, and we’ll be very close,’’ said associate vice president for student affairs Thomas Pellegrino. “If you are quote-unquote nonessential, we really would recommend that you just go home and come back.’’

At the University of Massachusetts Lowell, 2,300 upperclassmen are due to start moving into dorms at 8 a.m. Sunday, but Larry Siegel, dean of student affairs, said that was no longer hard and fast. “Come Monday. That’s fine. Come Tuesday. That’s fine,’’ he said. “If you can’t move during the week because your father only has his truck available on the weekend, come early. Or come with small stuff and do full check-in next weekend.’’

Siegel said the campus’s experience with Tropical Storm Danny in August 2009 had left it well-equipped for Irene.

“That entire week we were scampering around to buy hundreds of ponchos. We had administrative staff running around to every sporting goods store in town,’’ he said. “At this point in the game, shame on us if we don’t know how to prepare.’’

He added that if parents were stranded, the university owns a hotel. “I mean, they’ll have to pay for a room,’’ he said, “but they’ll certainly get a break.’’

Some schools were dealing with unusual challenges. At the New England Conservatory in Boston, most incoming students arrive with precious - and expensive - instruments easily damaged by rain. Michael Ryan, the school’s director of operations and facilities, said he would issue lockers for students to stash their prized possessions, although he still harbored hope that Irene would blow out to sea, leaving Boston relatively dry and unharmed.

At least one college was planning to weather the storm with very few changes to its original plan. Andrew Klein - dean of student affairs at Anna Maria College, a small liberal arts school in the Worcester suburb of Paxton - said the school would start classes Monday as scheduled. As for its 285 freshmen, orientation was still on.

“We’ll just ask them to stick close to their leaders and make sure they’re moving in packs,’’ he said. “It’ll be a different kind of team-building experience. They’ll be the hurricane class.’’

Mary Carmichael can be reached at mary.carmichael@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at mary_carmichael.