College Escapes Super-Storm Sandy Unharmed
Issue   |   Wed, 10/31/2012 - 20:18
Photo by Olivia Tarantino ’15
During the storm on Oct. 29, siding began to peel off the side of Waldorf-Astoria Dormitory due to the high winds.

Earlier this week, super-storm Sandy slammed into the east coast, causing strong winds, flooding and snow, leaving behind in its wake many fatalities, billions of dollars of damages and millions of people without power.

The College began preparing for the storm Oct. 26, when Jim Brassord, Director of Facilities, convened an Emergency Management Group meeting to prepare for the storm. The group includes representatives from the Facilities, Dean of Students, Human Resources, Dining Services, Environmental Health and Safety, Public Affairs, Information Technology, Admissions and Athletics Departments. The group put together plans to monitor the storm and prepare communications with the community. They also addressed potential hazards, such as power outages, and notified essential staff that they might have to work extended hours during the storm. After briefing the senior staff of the college on all plans and communications, they began preparing for the storm. Potential shelters like the Dining Hall and Health Services were prepared by bringing in generators in case power was lost. Cots and lanterns were also brought in, in case staff or students had to stay in the Dining Hall for an extended period of time. Furthermore, Dining Services pre-ordered additional food to ensure stocks were sufficient for an extended period, which included bringing in extra bottled water. They also established communication with the students at the College, sending out an email to the campus warning students of the incoming storm, as well as with the other colleges and universities in the area and the Town of Amherst.

By Oct. 28, campus police sent out another school-wide email warning that the storm was expected to hit early Monday morning and possibly extend into Tuesday. That evening, students and staff were informed via the college website that all college offices would be closed the next day and non-essential staff were not to report to work. At that time, classes would be held at the discretion of professors unless otherwise notified. However, on Monday morning, Oct. 29, the decision was made to cancel all classes.

“The college’s practice is that classes are held at the discretion of individual faculty when there is closure due to a snow storm. Typically a snowstorm does not put students at risk but it does put staff members that have to commute at risk. In certain rare circumstances, such as the event on Monday, when it is potentially hazardous for students to be outdoors it is prudent to cancel classes,” said Peter Rooney, the Director of Public Affairs.

Students were told that they could pick of food in Valentine in the morning and were warned to remain inside as much as possible to avoid blowing debris and falling tree limbs.

“We wanted to provide some food to be taken out in the morning, because we didn’t know how severe storm would be, and we wanted students to have some form of nourishment if it got too bad around dinner and lunch,” said Charlie Thompson, Director of Dining Services.

During the day Facilities and Custodial was at full staff, and additional staff from the Police and Environmental Health and Safety Departments were on duty throughout the storm. Health Services was staffed throughout the day and into the evening as well.

However, the campus experienced little damage from the storm. There were some minor, brief power outages. Humphries and Chapman were temporarily affected, and Mayo-Smith, Seeley and Hitchcock Dormitories had to run on a backup generator for a short period of time. However, there was little real physical damage to campus, though there was a considerable amount of fallen tree limbs and some uprooted trees. Monday evening, students received an email stating that classes would resume Tuesday, Oct. 30.

“Even though the storm ended up not being bad at all, it was still well worth the exercise,” Thompson said. “Because, during an emergency situation, at last minute the game may change.”

Throughout the storm, there were some complaints from students about how information and updates were communicated to the student body. Although students received most important information through official sources such as email, the weather line (542-SNOW), the college website and Facebook and Twitter, it was often the case that these sources were not updated with the same information at the same time. Furthermore, there was an issue with false information, especially via social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

“In the aftermath of every emergency event, the college’s emergency management group meets to assess how to improve communications going forward … I understand there was a relatively brief period of time where some RCs may have communicated inaccurate information regarding classes, but that was corrected,” said Charri Boykin-East, Interim Dean of Students. “Going forward we will make every effort to ensure that information shared during emergencies is accurate.”
Some students were also confused as to why the AC Alert system was not utilized during the storm. However, according to Chief of Amherst College Police John Carter, the severity of the storm did not merit use of that form of communication.

“The AC Alert system is reserved for imminent emergency communications only. The system was ready to be used should the storm become immediately dangerous to the safety of the campus community or should we have experienced a power outage that was going to be extended,” Carter said.

Students were also confused as to the lack of updates concerning whether or not Valentine Dining Hall was open. However, according to Rooney, the college did not want students to endanger themselves by traveling to Valentine too often.

“The Emergency Management Group was most concerned about the safety of the students and did not want to encourage students to go outside during hurricane conditions,” Rooney said.

Over the next week the Emergency Management Group will meet to discuss other ways they can improve their emergency preparedness.

“After each emergency event we self-assess to determine how we can improve campus communications during times of emergency such as Hurricane Sandy,” Rooney said. “The Emergency Management group will continue in its efforts to provide accurate, timely and essential information to all campus constituents, including students, during times of emergency, while also tending to all the other crucial components of emergency management.”