UC Merced

97-degree heat caused the only problems on otherwise flawless day

First lady Michelle Obama's visit to UC Merced was nearly flawless Saturday, with three exceptions: heat, heat and more heat.

As temperatures soared during Obama's outdoor speech around 2:25 p.m., a steady procession of audience members needed the help of medical staff at the scene.

Brian Ochs, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Hanford, said Merced had a high of about 97 on Saturday. That's up 11 degrees from Thursday's temperature of 86.

Still, many in the bowl said they felt like the temperature was at least 100 degrees. Tonya Luiz, UC Merced spokeswoman, said nearly 100 people were treated for heat-related illnesses. She said 77 were treated on campus, while eight were sent by ambulance to Mercy Medical Center Merced.

"We knew we'd have some issues with the heat, so we planned ahead for this," said Greg Spurgeon, the campus assistant director of health services.

Mercy Medical Center Merced officials were expecting at least 38 people to come to the hospital's emergency room late Saturday with heat problems. Many in the commencement audience had little or no shade; many people used stiff cardboard and makeshift paper fans to try to keep cool.

Robert McLaughlin, Mercy spokesman, said that by 4:30 p.m., eight people had come into the hospital's emergency department for treatment of overheating. The hospital was expecting about 30 more to show up before the day's end.

"For the first time, the ER people were actually talking about diverting ambulances to Emanuel Medical Center in Turlock (20 miles north)," McLaughlin said.

The university set up a tent in the campus' quad area, and a treatment center in the Joseph Edward Gallo Recreation and Wellness Center. Dozens of people throughout the day rested in cots set up inside of the building, sipping bottled water and trying to stay cool.

UC Merced Police Chief Rita Spaur said one of her officers was among those who required treatment because of the heat.

Other than the heat, Spaur said the event was safe and no arrests were reported among the more than 12,000 who attended.

"It was a very pleasant crowd," Spaur said. "We enjoyed them as much as they enjoyed being here."

Spaur said 70 police officers from the University of California system were at the event. They worked alongside dozens of Secret Service agents, dressed in suits and keeping a watchful eye on the crowds.

Meanwhile, pairs of sharp-shooters from the Merced County Sheriff Department's SWAT Team were clearly visible on the rooftops of the campus' Science and Engineering Building and Kolligian Library.

The sheriff's department helped UC police by contributing about 45 deputies to help with security, according to Sgt. B.J. Jones.

The California Highway Patrol contributed 25 officers, some of whom escorted the first lady and her motorcade from Castle Airport to UC Merced. The CHP also provided traffic control on neighboring streets, according to Capt. Steve Badilla.

The Merced Police Department contributed 12 police officers to handle traffic in Merced related to the event Friday and Saturday. The police department also directed buses from Merced College to UC Merced, said Cmdr. Floyd Higdon.

About seven paramedics from CalFire/Merced County Fire Department were on hand to keep the event safe.

In addition, about 162 volunteers, including staff from the Merced County District Attorney's Office, police cadets and other agencies helped police. Many of the volunteers staffed the 39 metal detectors set up outside of the event.

Sheriff Mark Pazin said the success of the commencement ceremonies was due to the collaboration between all agencies involved.

"Everything went without a hitch," Pazin said. "We were all prepared for any incident that might have come our way."

One of those who required treatment from the heat was Sun-Star photographer Marci Stenberg, who had been on campus since 6 a.m. She was taken by ambulance mid-afternoon to Mercy's ER and was later recovering there after an IV and treatment.

She was released from the hospital around 6 p.m..

Reporter Carol Reiter can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or creiter@mercedsun-star.com. Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsun-star.com.