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A "perfect storm" rages through campus

It was the rare, possibly once-in-a-lifetime weather event that lived up to all the hype.

Hurricane Sandy, dubbed a “perfect storm” by some meteorologists and a “hurricane wrapped in a winter storm” by others, roared into the Lehigh Valley on Monday night.

In its wake, the storm left downed power lines, flooding in some areas, and uprooted trees and broken limbs still heavy with autumn leaves.

Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc up and down the East Coast—all the way from the Carolinas to Maine—and devastated shore points along New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. By the time it dissipated Tuesday, more than 7.5 million people in the northeastern United States were without power.

The Lehigh Valley was also deeply impacted by the pre-Halloween “Frankenstorm” that descended around 6 p.m. Monday night with pelting rain and winds raging up to 70 mph. More than 450,000 customers lost power in the Lehigh Valley alone, and PPL reported that nearly 230,000 remained without power as of late Wednesday.

It was not until Thursday that much of the campus power system had been restored and that progress was being made towards normal operations. Some residence halls and administrative buildings remain without power, but students began returning to residence halls and chapter houses with stable power.

Both libraries opened, dining services expanded operations, classrooms were readied and transportation began running on a regular schedule. Many campus events are moving forward as scheduled.

Much of South Bethlehem remains without power and Lehigh administrators acknowledged the challenges that remain while preparing to resume classes next week.

“Although classes will not resume until Monday, Nov. 5, we know students are eager to return and get back to their studies,” said Provost Pat Farrell. “We are doing everything we can to get back to a normal schedule as soon as possible.”

Farrell said faculty will work with students who face extenuating circumstances resulting from the storm, and noted that the university was well aware that the families of many students, faculty and staff were still facing difficulties in the storm’s aftermath.

A spirit of cooperation

Administrators lauded the ongoing efforts of the Lehigh community to meet the challenges presented by Hurricane Sandy and the power outage. Lehigh’s Crisis Management Team, made up of the university’s senior officers, began meeting and planning the weekend before the storm.

“During times like these past few days, it becomes ever more clear that Lehigh is blessed to have a very special group of dedicated individuals who are willing to commit fully to the needs of the campus community,” said Joe Sterrett, the Murray H. Goodman Dean of Athletics and head of the team.

“Our primary objectives continue to be focused on the safety of our students, faculty and staff, and planning for the most expedient return possible to full campus functionality.”

John Smeaton, vice provost for student affairs, said students and their families have been exceptionally cooperative and understanding, and that the work of staff members has been extraordinary.

“In the midst of the worst of the storm, our LUPD officers were there throughout the night to ensure the safety of the campus community and to keep us informed so we could share that information with others and make informed decisions as we moved through this crisis,” Smeaton said.

Van Dobson, associate vice president for facilities services, said he’s been impressed with how well the greater Lehigh staff has pulled together to address the multitude of issues created by Hurricane Sandy.

“Within the Lehigh team, well over 200 members of our facilities and campus planning teams responded to the crisis,” he said. “In addition to the many technicians performing work in the field, a small team has been identifying and dispatching work and tracking progress.

“This emergency response was in addition to meeting ongoing needs for plant operations, housekeeping and sanitation. Both Lehigh staff and our supporting contractors have made themselves immediately available to support whatever needs were identified.”

Sharon Basso, dean of students, said, “We certainly appreciate the exceptional efforts of all the residence life, fraternity and sorority affairs, and residential services staff, as well as our Gryphons, who showed exceptional commitment under challenging circumstances.”

But challenges remain.

“As power resumes and we slowly move students back to campus,” said Basso, “there will still be some issues to work through, so their continued patience and cooperation will be much appreciated.”

A night like no other

The Lehigh community braced for the storm as weather forecasts predicted the timing of its arrival on Monday evening. Sections of campus started losing power early Monday night, and it wasn’t long before all buildings and much of South Bethlehem lost power and were plunged into darkness. Back-up generators kept buildings on campus supplied with emergency lighting and safety systems, and work crews were quickly dispatched to begin dealing with a host of issues.

Michael Trzesniowski, director of energy and utilities and Lehigh’s liaison with power provider PPL, said he received the first call at 2 a.m. Tuesday and arrived on campus shortly afterward to confer with PPL crews and begin assessing the damage to the power system.

It was also readily apparent to Gary Falasca, director of Facilities Services, that the campus had sustained considerable damage from strong winds that sheared a section of the roof of Packer Church, damaged roof flashing at the Zoellner Arts Center and toppled trees that ended up leaning against the Chandler-Ullmann and Christmas-Saucon buildings and Psi Upsilon fraternity.

“We also lost some very large trees on the UC lawn that provided a great deal of shade, and that landscape has been significantly altered by this storm,” Falasca said. “We can replace them, of course, but we won’t be able to replant anything nearly as large as these were.”

Emergency mode

By early Tuesday morning, Lehigh’s crisis and operations teams assembled to begin formulating the university’s response to the emergency. Two LU-ALERTS were immediately sent to the campus community warning of unsafe conditions from live downed power lines, followed by a notice about 30 minutes later that the issue had been resolved. Classes, which were cancelled on Monday and Tuesday in anticipation of the coming storm, were cancelled for the remainder of the week, and students who were able to safely leave campus were encouraged to do so.

Updates were posted to the university website, and residence staff began working with students who remained on campus to relocate them to buildings with power. Dining Services concentrated food service to a primary location and began offering meals to anyone with a Lehigh student ID. A phone bank was set up to field questions from concerned parents and others.

By late Tuesday, power had been restored to a significant portion of campus—hours and possibly days ahead of the anticipated restoration, according to Trzesniowski.

The crisis, operations and repair teams were aided tremendously by steps that Lehigh took after the 2011 Halloween snowstorm caused a five-day power outage on campus, said Trzesniowski.

“After last year’s storm, we cleared trees away from power lines, replaced some vulnerable wooden poles with steel poles, and worked with PPL to implement some improvements based on the lessons learned.”

One important action was the installation of an automated reporting system that allows Lehigh staff to monitor ongoing restoration efforts.


Photos 1 and 2 by Tom Yencho