Lehigh University
Lehigh University

News

Team effort helps Lehigh weather unprecedented storm

Wet, heavy snow blanketed the Lehigh campus on Saturday, leading to broken tree limbs and downed power lines.

A freak October nor’easter that dumped up to a foot of snow on the Lehigh Valley and caused power outages from West Virginia to Maine posed significant health and safety issues for the Lehigh University community, forcing the university to evacuate students and cancel classes for three days.

Starting Saturday, Lehigh personnel worked around-the-clock to deal with the storm and resulting power outage. On Sunday, students were evacuated safely and Lehigh staffers found shelter for those who needed it. With power out, residence halls and Greek houses were without heat, light, security and fire alarms, creating a dangerous situation.

On Wednesday morning, power was restored and faculty, staff and students began reporting back to campus under brilliant blue skies and warm sunshine. It was a stark difference from the wintry storm that roared through the region over Halloween weekend. PPL Electric Utilities categorized the storm as one of the five worst in the past 20 years, and it came on the heels of two major outages in September due to Hurricane Irene and remnants of Tropical Storm Lee.

An army of more than 200 volunteers

PPL reports that it has restored power to 340,000 customers, or about 95 percent of those who lost power due to Saturday’s storm.

In its wake, Facilities Services staffers and Brickman Industries contractors cleared roads and sidewalks, cleaned up hundreds of fallen trees on the 1,600-acre campus, and worked closely with PPL crews to restore power.

A volunteer army of more than 200 Lehigh faculty and staff members—some of whom were without power in their own homes—did everything from lugging cots and mattresses across campus to temporary shelters in Windish Hall, Lower Centennial Hall, and Brodhead House to manning phone lines to take calls from concerned parents and others. Some concerned faculty and staff members even took students into their own homes while the campus was closed.

Lehigh University Police put extra officers on patrol to maintain safety, while Access Control and Locksmithing secured all campus buildings. And the health center continued to manage and respond to the health needs of students.

"The Lehigh community responded the way it always does when faced with an unusual and difficult situation--by rolling up our sleeves and working together," President Alice P. Gast says. "I'd like to thank everyone who helped restore our campus to full operation. The dedication and spirit at Lehigh is truly inspiring."

Canceling three days of classes poses some academic challenges, since 4 o’clock exams had been scheduled for today and tomorrow.

"I recognize that this situation has been challenging for everyone, and that includes our students, faculty and staff. Despite the trying circumstances, we want to provide our students with the learning opportunities that they missed," says Provost Pat Farrell, who announced a plan to reschedule classes and exams earlier today.

Farrell also encouraged faculty to accommodate scheduling difficulties as "generously as possible." 

'An outstanding effort'

John Smeaton, vice provost for Student Affairs, called the tireless work by people across the university “a genuine team effort."

Throughout the ordeal, the safety of students was paramount. While most students went home or stayed with friends off-campus, those who had no place to go found shelter in the three buildings that kept power through the storm: Windish, Lower Cents and Brodhead. Head Gryphons stayed in the shelters around-the-clock to help students.

"We did everything we could to take care of the students and to make them as safe and comfortable as we could under the circumstances," says Ozzie Breiner, director of Residential Services.

Students tended to take it all in stride. Stephanie Serritello '14, who was evacuated from Umoja House and stayed in Broadhead, says: "Basically, five of us stayed in my friend's dorm room. It was crowded, but we had fun anyway. It was actually pretty comfortable."

And parents pitched in by taking in friends and roommates of their own students. Gwen Gummersall '14, who was evacuated from Drinker, says, “I was lucky enough to be able to stay with my roommate's family in Abington, Pa. Lehigh handled it the best way they could have.”

As the storm swept in Saturday, an operations team composed of leaders from areas across campus assembled quickly with the main priority of safeguarding students. Preparations were made to house and feed those students who didn’t have any place to go and they opened ongoing communications with the university community through text alerts, e-mails, web articles, Facebook, Twitter and the university’s official update line, 610-758-NEWS.

The cleanup effort was herculean. Seven or eight bucket trucks with chippers manned by a total of at least 100 workers cleaned up fallen trees and limbs and cleared walks and roadways.

"It was an outstanding effort,” says Gary Falasca, director of Facilities Services. “None of us faced anything as complex as this situation, and to see people volunteer, to pitch in to help in any way that they could, was really incredible.”

Story by Linda Harbrecht and Jack Croft

Posted on Wednesday, November 02, 2011

share this story: