After last Saturday’s snowstorm plunged most of Connecticut into darkness, the University community endured days without heat or electricity. Although many dorms and houses on campus have now regained power, according to Connecticut Light & Power (CL&P) as of Thursday night, some students may have to remain in the dark until Sunday.
“The only promise CL&P is making is that [power will return] by midnight on Sunday,” said Director of Residential Life (ResLife) Fran Koerting. “Physical Plant is hounding them to try to have it be sooner rather than later, but it’s out of Wesleyan’s control. They are doing everything they possibly can to influence their decision, but they can’t force them to do that.”
According to Koerting, the students living on Cross Street and Knowles Avenue were without power as of Thursday afternoon. There are also still other isolated areas without power, including parts of Washington Street and International House on Church Street. Koerting said the University had no influence over which streets received power first.
“I think the biggest challenge was that the University didn’t have control over which places came back up on power,” she said. “I know that people from facilities were really advocating for certain streets and areas to get power back before others, because that’s where larger concentrations of students lived. We’re at the mercy of CL&P—of what they can bring up and what they can’t.”
The 39 students in 200 Church and the 42 students in 156 High were asked to vacate their buildings during the power outage because of ResLife’s concerns about students’ safety. Many students without power went to stay with friends, while ResLife relocated others to dorm lounges.
The October storm froze tree leaves—that typically would have fallen before the first major snowstorm of the year—which added extra weight and brought down branches. The storm also toppled power lines and left an unprecedented trail of damage.
Al Lara, a representative from CL&P, said that while the company is accustomed to removing trees during a storm, the October snowstorm created unprecedented problems.
“Our system is designed to withstand snow,” Lara said. “But this is complicated, more complicated than Hurricane Irene. We have to remove branches with power lines that are tangled in leaves and snow and hardened ice.”
Power on campus went out around midnight Saturday night, and students, faculty, and staff were forced to brave the elements without heat, electricity, and electronic means of communication.
Hewitt Residential Adviser Dina Moussa ’12 said that communicating information to students about the disaster without using cell phones or the Internet was the most significant obstacle she faced.
“We had to go around and find people to keep them informed,” Moussa said. “We tried putting up fliers. We went around and knocked on every door in the dorms. We did everything you could possibly imagine doing.”
Koerting commended ResLife’s student staff for their efforts carrying out fire watches and helping residents get into their buildings.
“Our student staff have been putting in enormous amounts of time,” she said. “They went above and beyond with the amount of time and effort that they put into trying to help their residents work around the constraints that they had.”
President Michael Roth said that he was particularly impressed with the University’s emergency notification system.
“We tried to use everything we could,” Roth said. “We used phone, we used texting, we used email, we used fliers. We used any mechanism that could keep communication frequent. And at the end of every message, we always said when you would hear from us again. The news we had wasn’t always good, but the communications were timely.”
Some parents, on the other hand, said that they believed communication to be one of the University’s weakest areas during the disaster.
“The information distribution was not good overall,” said Michelle Herman P ’15. “The parents who knew what was going on were the ones whose children could stay in touch to give them updates.”
In one of the first messages to students and parents, Vice President for Student Affairs Mike Whaley informed students on Sunday that power would be out for at least 24 hours and that Monday classes would be canceled. He wrote that the University would provide a continental breakfast on Monday morning, but would not offer food services before then. Whaley also said that it would be cold in the University’s residences, and that students might wish to leave campus.
Herman expressed concern about the Administration’s suggestion for students to leave campus.
“The worst part of the University’s message was the part that said that students were being encouraged to leave if they can,” Herman said. “That is a really bad sentence to read when you’re 600 miles away and your kid has nowhere to go. That’s when I started to get anxious. It felt like an emergency for the first time.”
Herman suggested that the University should have provided some sort of transportation for students rather than just encouraging the students to leave.
Until Monday morning, some students subsisted off food they happened to have in their rooms, while others with cars were able to eat at restaurants outside of Middletown. But by Monday, students were able to get a hot meal on campus thanks to the efforts of Bon Appetit and WesWings.
“We knew by Sunday night that we would have significant food loss,” said co-owner of WesWings Ed Thorndike ’89. “We knew the students had not yet eaten a hot meal. So we decided it would be nice if we could supply hot food.”
Despite not having power themselves, Thorndike and co-owner Karen Kaffen loaded their cars with generators and grills and provided a free cookout for the students with burgers, veggie burgers, hot dogs, soup, and eggs.
Bon Appetit employees also offered free food service on Sunday afternoon and Monday morning. Between the two dining services, the students were provided with at least two meals daily. Weshop, the student grocery store, also remained open during the outage.
Many students who remained on campus enjoyed the opportunity to spend time with friends.
“I think the lack of technology brought us together,” said Psi Upsilon Fraternity member Simon Edmonds-Langham ’14. “Our president went and waited in line in Cromwell for three hours to get us pizza. It was a great thing for a brotherhood.”
While Edmonds-Langham appreciated the experience, he said that the fraternity house was too cold to live in without heat and power.
“I don’t think anybody [was] able to sleep there,” Edmonds-Langham said. “A lot of people went back to their homes in the area, but now that classes are beginning, most of us ended up sleeping on the floors of other dorms.”
According to Director of Public Safety (PSafe) Dave Meyer, this is the first time the University lost the central core of campus, though the PSafe building remained on a generator throughout the outage. Meyer said PSafe increased its presence in many of the areas on campus without power.
“We’ve increased our patrols, and we have more people out and about, like in the woodframe areas,” he said. “Where they don’t have power we’ve parked cruisers out there so if anybody has an issue they can see the cruiser.”
Roth suggested that the core of the University regained central power before much of the rest of Middletown because the population density is greater within the dorms on campus, which made the core of campus a priority for CL&P.
“We said we’d like to get the power as soon as possible, but they made the determinations based upon needs and population concerns,” Roth said.
The University resumed classes on Wednesday, while most program houses and woodframes were still without power. While acknowledging that these conditions were not ideal, Roth said he believes this was the most effective measure for the University.
“It’s better to have classes than to not have classes, even if not everybody is as prepared as they would like to be for those classes,” Roth said. “We have classes because that’s what we do at a University—we have classes.”
Meyer noted that the University has had a record-breaking number of weather-related closings in 2011.
“We’ve had to close the University four days in this calendar year, and I don’t think we’ve closed it four days in the other 31 years I’ve been here,” he said.
As life on campus resumed, many students pitched in to help Middletown residents who are still without power. Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) President Zachary Malter said he was notified that the Middletown shelter could use volunteers, and offered to spread the word and coordinate transportation. The WSA sent out an all-campus email early in the week and shuttles to the shelter started running on Wednesday.
“The first day there were 50 plus student volunteers, and we are on pace to have as many student volunteers [Thursday],” Malter wrote in an email to The Argus. “The shelter inhabitants are very grateful for the support of Wesleyan volunteers.”
Additional reporting for this story was provided by Max Brivic.