After dodging a bullet two months ago when Hurricane Irene blew by leaving the College relatively unscathed, Amherst bit a bullet over the weekend, as an October Nor’easter pummeled the campus with record amounts of snow.
The storm, which hit campus in the early afternoon on Saturday, left several of the main quads in shambles as it knocked down trees all over campus, and resulted in a power outage around midnight on Saturday. Nationally, the storm left at least nine dead and more than three million without power throughout the Northeast. Much of the damage was attributed to the wet snow that weighed down branches, resulting in damage to roofs and power lines, and consequently leaving countless residents out in the cold. The storm also damaged cell towers, making it difficult for people to stay in touch with one another.
With backup generators sputtering to life in only a few buildings and emergency lights in dormitories lasting for only a few hours, the dark campus was eventually closed on Saturday.
Facilities Steps Up
By Sunday morning, however, a backup generator providing power — and perhaps just as important, Internet access — in Valentine Dining Hall quickly gathered a crowd, as students, staff and faculty alike all gathered looking for food, news and a chance to reconnect after a night without power.
“Val reminded me of a hurricane shelter back home [in Miami],” said Daniella Bassi ’14.
Director of Dining Services Charlie Thompson credited the Facilities department and his staff for the relative ease in keeping Val open.
“Facilities really pulled through for us and were great. Everyone really pulled through. I have a very dedicated staff,” Thompson said. “They knew they had to be here and feed people. Many of them came in earlier than usual to help out. They knew they had a job to do and they came in to do it.”
Facilities had the Val generator ready to go by 8:20 a.m., allowing Dining Services to prepare their normal menu and run at full force by lunchtime. They did, however, have to use paper plates and disposable utensils due to the inability of some part-time workers to make it into Val.
“In my almost 20 years here, I don’t remember ever losing power for more than an hour and I have not seen an outage so widespread. I have never experienced anything like what we just went through,” Thompson said.
Community in Adversity
Because of the enormous volume of traffic passing through the dining hall, Val remained open throughout the day, closing only at 9 p.m., after power had been restored to all but the buildings on the extended campus. Thompson estimates that somewhere between 1,700 and 2,000 people used Valentine for dinner, including students, staff, faculty and community members alike.
“It was quite amazing. We as a campus pride ourselves on a culture of community and yesterday and today really showed that. Students, employees, faculty and staff — everyone was here [in Val], some with their families, getting warm and getting nourishment and charging their cell phones and computers,” Thompson explained. “Val, from a communal point of view, proved it could provide the function of a safe haven. Even people outside of the campus community came in, and we extended our hand to them. It just goes to show the community on campus, and that is really what Amherst is all about.”
In addition to providing a generator to Val, the Facilites department made sure that the emergency systems would be up and running and the back-up generators working so as much of campus would be on power as possible. Additionally, once the storm passed, they began the long work of cleaning up campus.
“Luckily, no major damage was done to any facility on campus, and there were no injuries to staff or students,” said Jim Brassord, Director of Facilities.
Police Chief John Carter also remarked on the overall preparedness of campus: “the infrastructure we had in place served the community well. No students were ever in jeopardy, and we got the power restored fairly quickly.”
Students were very impressed with the work of Facilities and Dining Services. “The maintenance and staff at Val did a fantastic job, and it was the least I could do to give back and make their lives a little easier,” said Nazir Khan ’14. With the College closed on Monday, many students pitched in and spent the morning helping with the clean-up effort.
Others made the best of an unexpected situation.“Since we didn’t have electricity, we did stuff together. We went sledding and built snowmen. It was really nice, and I feel like we became closer as a dorm,” Bassi said.
Power returned to the main campus around 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, and a school-wide email sent about an hour later declared that Monday classes were cancelled. Hampshire, Smith, UMass and Mt. Holyoke also cancelled Monday classes.
The cancelled classes came as a relief to many students, and gave them the opportunity to catch up on work and spend time with friends on Halloween weekend. “It was so cool to be sitting in Valentine and hear everyone start screaming when the news came that there was no school,” said C.J. Bernstein ’15.
Meanwhile, students in most dorms removed from the main campus were informed that they had to evacuate, as the lack of power and heating meant they would have had to brave bitterly cold temperatures in the night. Residential Counselors (RCs) became the main conduit of communication from the administration and students.
“The Residential Life staff, deans and RCs worked really hard to make sure that everyone was getting the information that they needed during this blizzard,” said Cohan RC Jillian Stockmo ’13. “I think that everyone was very concerned about safety, especially in communication about evacuating dorms on Sunday night. I know that no one wants to leave their dorm and stay with a friend, it’s inconvenient and troublesome, but the evacuations on Sunday were in the best interests of the residents.”
“Cohan was one of the dorms that had to be evacuated, for safety reasons. The building had no light and was freezing,” Stockmo added. “If you know how dark Cohan can get and how steep some of the steps are, it was definitely the right decision. In making all the decisions over the course of this weekend, both Res Life and the Dean of Students (as well as other people who were involved) truly had the students’ safety at heart.”
Most students found shelter for the night with friends on main campus. “Yesterday was interesting because we had anywhere from two to 10 people in our room [in Valentine Dorm] at a time as we were trying to make sure everyone had a place to stay,” said Alexandra Coston ’14. “It was nice to have a sense of camaraderie.”
Students Give Back
A campus-wide clean up started on the freshmen quad on Monday morning. The Association of Amherst Students emailed students to encourage students to lend a hand to Facilities by helping to clear paths and picking up fallen branches.
“I really only expected about 10 to 20 people to actually show up, but was incredible seeing somewhere around 80 people work together and help out,” Khan said. “It made me happy to see that so many students and faculty came out, it just shows how strong the Amherst community is.”
Asked why she was helping, Crystal Yan ’14 explained that, “Everyone — students, faculty, staff — we’re all stakeholders in this college’s community. Amherst’s staff was unbelievable yesterday, as they were working so hard to make sure we were okay … when they have their own homes and families who may not have had power in town. I guess I was hoping the more hands on deck, the faster it would get done, and the sooner they could get back to their families.”
The large student and staff response was overwhelming to the Facilities staff.
“The Facilities staff was emotionally moved by the level of response and how the community came together. What was done in one day would have taken the ground staff two or three weeks to do on their own,” Brassord said.