Shelter From the Storm

Emergency teams take action as October snowstorm takes down campus power

by Elise Gibson

The Smith capus after the storm of October 2011

Results of “Snowtober” on campus.

Mother Nature played the trickster on the last Saturday in October, sending snow so heavy that one observer compared it to “falling cement.” Within hours, the campus and most of the region were plunged into darkness as trees fell on power lines, bringing a cold halt to pre-Halloween festivities.

“Everywhere we went, we could hears trees snapping and falling,” said Rebecca Shaw, director of residence life.

As the campus fired up its generators shortly after 6 p.m., the emergency response team went into action. The Campus Center, warm and bright with generator-fueled lights, became a 24-hour gathering place. Saturday dinner was cooked, so dining services director Kathleen Zieja went to each dining room to close down the kitchens and send the staff home. Public spaces in the houses had light, and houses, in general, stayed warm, although some were overheated because computer-reliant monitors were knocked out.

The public safety department sent text messages, emails, and recorded phone calls notifying the entire campus community of where to call for help. Shaw and others from the residence life staff went from house to house posting signs for anyone who may not have gotten the message.

As she stepped out of the swirling snow and into Parsons House, Shaw was greeted with so much happy noise it sounded like a party. There, as in houses across campus, students gathered in common areas and broke out the cards and board games. In Morrow, head resident Sofia Goodrich opened her suite, which was warmer and brighter than the rest of the house, to her housemates. Morrowite Sydney Burns ’14 used her computer to host a movie night. “They used [the outage] as an opportunity to get to know their residents better,” Shaw said.

Emergency cots came out of storage in John M. Greene Hall and were set up in the Campus Center’s Carroll Room for anyone needing a warm place to bunk. By Sunday night that included evacuated residents from Park House and Annex, and a few other locations where emergency lights and fire systems had run out of battery power. “Some people used the cots, others slept on couches all over the building,” said Patrick Connelly, assistant director for student engagement. “We even had a few community members.” The Campus Center wasn’t an official shelter for the city, but plenty of people came by as late as Tuesday to get warm, charge their cell phones, use the Internet, and get a free cup of coffee, Connelly said. “It’s a big glass building,” he said, “and when it’s the only light in a dark neighborhood, we’re like a beacon.”

On Sunday, the campus emergency response team met to review the situation. Given the widespread damage and no word on when power would be restored, the team recommended closing the college on the Monday after the storm, said Scott Graham, associate director of public safety and emergency response team leader. Zieja’s team opened five dining rooms and served cold cereals and milk for breakfast and tuna sandwiches for lunch, and, as Zieja put it, “more of the same” for dinner. In place of its regular Monday food deliveries, the staff order non-perishables, along with sliced meats and cheese, coffeecakes, chips.

Not long after power was restored Monday at about 8:30 a.m., students at Gardiner sent the dining staff a note: “No lights. No classes. But food, yes. Thank you so much.”

Click here for a photo gallery of the Smith campus after the storm.

Elise Gibson is managing editor of the Quarterly