Snow Day of Judgment

WKNDFront

On an ordinary Friday night at Yale, numerous students — excited, bright-eyed and under various degrees of intoxication — stumbled to line up in the Woolsey Hall rotunda.

Dressed in a haphazard assortment of glittery clothes, neon headbands and plastic bracelets, the students waited to get into Commons for a campus-wide dance event. Across the hall, Yale administrators, their guests and another group of students dressed in formal attire filled a dozen rows of seats in Woolsey, anticipating a world-class concert.

At the same time, a group of international visitors stepped off a tour bus onto campus, chattering excitedly amongst themselves on Grove Street.
Some lifted cameras to their faces.

Others pulled open the doors of the rotunda, peering curiously inside.

Suddenly — out of nowhere — an explosion on Grove Street blew out all the Woolsey windows.

PREDICTING THE UNPREDICTABLE

Maria Bouffard, Yale’s Director of Emergency Management passed the hypothetical scenario out to the 60 people seated around the table.

The other members of the team read through the fact sheet as they passed it around, nodding and contributing their thoughts to the plan for how University administrators would proceed should the windows of Woolsey Hall really explode.

Bouffard leads the University’s emergency response team, a group of administrators, staff and faculty on campus who meet once a month and are poised to react in the event of a crisis, be it nightmarish weather, a disease outbreak or worse. Three or four times a year, Bouffard stages a tabletop: a hypothetical situation to which the emergency response team constructs a comprehensive response while seated around a table.

“You’d be very surprised about how you can feel your blood pressure moving up,” said team member and University Associate Vice President Martha Highsmith of the exercises. “People really get into it, which is good because you want that kind of adrenaline.”

Some crises, like a hurricane or national disease outbreak, can be prepared for with advance notice. Others, such as a violent crime or fire, must be handled immediately and without hesitation. The emergency management team has a range of plans laid out for any type of emergency, which spell out the best orders of contact, roles for specific administrators, ways in which to prepare the campus and more, so that when the time comes, the team can spring into action.

Vice President Linda Lorimer said that after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Yale recognized the need to adopt this continuous model of emergency preparedness and developed a serious dedication to creating plans of action for different scenarios. She added that a task force of staff members and administrators worked on emergency preparedness as parts of their jobs, but the University hired Bouffard four years ago when they realized the benefit of having someone work on the plans full-time.

“I think we are a model institution for having really well organized protocols and lots of employees who are designated to be emergency responders,” University President Richard Levin said.

Since 2001, the University’s emergency preparedness force has grown to 63 faculty and established connections with local and national emergency response networks, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Lorimer said.

In addition to tabletops, Yale also conducts drills, in which emergency responders play out various scenarios. Highsmith said these are held rarely because they are both labor and time-intensive — in a recent drill, staff members had to set up a portable hospital in the gym and prepare to administer mass vaccinations, a necessary measure in the case of a smallpox outbreak, for example.

Bouffard called Yale’s emergency readiness process “ongoing.”

“It’s something we are always getting better at and talking about. It evolves and evolves and evolves,” she added. “Our plan doesn’t have time to sit on a shelf and get dusty.”

The University has certainly had opporunity to put its plans to the test this year. Two extreme weather occurrences resulted in Yale canceling classes four times — an unthinkable volume, considering the last cancellation occurred in February of 1978. Though neither emergency involved window-shattering explosions (Highsmith noted that Bouffard does have a “pretty active imagination”), Hurricane Sandy and the recent blizzard hit New Haven with a vengeance, leaving the emergency response team the task of holding Yale together.

READY, SET, RESPOND

Yale and the rest of the Northeast received a few days’ notice before Hurricane Sandy was scheduled to touch down in New Jersey on Monday, Oct. 29. Accordingly, the emergency response team implemented the massive hurricane plan of action.

The Yale community received the first email about Sandy from Vice President Linda Lorimer that Saturday morning, without knowing how important (or abundant) Lorimer’s emails would later become.

After explaining that the University was closely watching the path of Hurricane Sandy, Lorimer concluded, “Let’s hope the storm turns right into the North Atlantic!”

But turn into the Atlantic it did not.

Behind the scenes, Lorimer, Highsmith and Bouffard coordinated with the predetermined emergency team of police officers, security officers, facilities staff, dining hall staff, custodial staff and Yale Health workers who would perform emergency duties through the storm. A team of 26 responders set up the Emergency Operations Center, or EOC, a situation room-type home base on the second floor of the Yale Police Department at 101 Ashmun St. The group camped out in the room for over two days, coordinating preparation and responses to the storm over conference calls with city and state officials.

In the hours leading up to the storm, crews laid down sandbags around buildings with sloped walkways and entrances to prevent water from rushing in. Yale staff placed flood faxes — large, diaper-like sacks that retain up to 40 pounds of water — in various facilities to absorb flooding. Rafi Taherian, executive Director of Dining, coordinated emergency food deliveries ahead of time so that annexed students and freshmen could stock up on provisions. Meanwhile, Robert Klein, Deputy Director of Environmental Health and Safety, canvassed science laboratories to make sure various apparatuses were secure before the storm.

Lorimer’s emails became more urgent. On Sunday afternoon, Lorimer announced the cancellation of Monday classes. The move was almost unprecedented — Yale hadn’t canceled classes since a massive blizzard body-slammed the city in 1978.

“The first priority is life and safety,” Highsmith said. “If it’s not safe for people to be out, driving or even walking around, then classes have to give way.”

With constant status updates from the city and storm projections coming in over conference calls multiple times a day, the 26 staff and administrators ate and slept in the EOC. On Monday, when winds of almost 90 m.p.h. started to bring down branches and power lines around campus, the group decided to cancel classes and activities on Tuesday as well.

In 1978 — the last year that Yale canceled classes — the situation was less dire, but also more disorganized. Dining hall staff workers slept in offices and dining hall basements, and professors were trapped off campus. Most significantly, the University hardly made any contact with its students.

FLASHBACK: FEBRUARY, 1978

Barrett Ford ’80 woke up to a world of white.

Outside his Davenport dorm room window, the ground was no longer visible — the grass and pavement were replaced by a relentless barrage from the sky, so bright that it was staggering to look at. Snow fell in a furious daze. Ford’s roommate, Kenneth Bass ’80, who was from South Carolina, had never seen the likes of such weather before, and excitedly ushered the both of them out into the street to witness it firsthand.

They stood at the intersection of College and Elm, observing the buildings visible all around them, bathed in the eerie whiteness — Woolsey Hall, Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall. Bass wore a giant winter coat that his mother had purchased for him before he left the South for Yale (the “one time I got to wear it,” he noted). Ford had his camera with him, and he has kept the photographs from that first snow day for over 30 years now.

“Even though I was used to slogging through all kinds of snow in the wintertime, this was something special,” Ford said. “We stood in the very center of Elm Street, this huge intersection. There wasn’t a car to be seen. White and snow all about. It was remarkable.”

It was the first week of February in 1978 — the Northeastern United States blizzard had just hit Connecticut, and Yale’s campus was swathed in slush. Connecticut governor Ella T. Grasso ordered all state roads closed except for emergency travel for three days — essentially shutting down the entire state — and Yale issued the order to classes and operations entirely, said Levin, who was an associate professor at the time.

Snowed in, Ford and Bass pushed their door open the next morning and noticed the freshly printed paper on the door. It announced that all University classes were canceled that day.

“Because I was a dinosaur from the class of ’80, there was no such thing as texting or emailing or anything,” Ford said. “There were notices posted right there in the front entryway, because there was a lot of speculation [that classes would be canceled]. The storm was so intense.”

April Alliston ’80 said that though she did not even remember that classes were canceled that year, she still remembered the storm simply for the seemingly unprecedented amount of snow that fell on campus. Several other alumni interviewed said they also did not recall details of the day — only the fact that they had never seen that amount of snow.

During the blizzard itself, administrators did not actively prohibit students from venturing outside, and by no means did students hole up in their rooms. They took to the streets, whooping and playing in the snow. Bass said he does not recall receiving any instructions from the University regarding emergency procedures, curfews or warnings to stay inside.

“What I remember is unmerciful taunting from my roommate from Wisconsin for us Easterners making a big deal out of a little bit of snow,” Andrew Lipka ’78 recalled. Lipka added that most of what he remembers from the blizzard involves alcohol — the drinking age was 18 at the time — as well as “well-lubricated snow fights” and an attempt at an impromptu imitation of Bladderball.

A day after the storm hit, a Feb. 8, 1978, article in the News blared a headline across the front page: “SNOWSTORM BLITZES CAMPUS.” The report detailed students taking advantage of the snow by drift-diving, building snowmen in the Grove Street cemetery (“[The deceased] will appreciate it,” one student told the News that day) and engaging in impromptu athletics. One student, John Muir ’80, jumped from a third-floor Trumbull window and hit the courtyard below, and had to be taken to a New Haven hospital for treatment of his injuries.

According to Lipka, the University was able to clear pathways fairly quickly, allowing for students to navigate across campus. Though the dining halls were not open right away, Lipka said he and his friends trudged across the street to Broadway Pizza — the “cousin of Yorkside Pizza” — to eat and were not too inconvenienced by the storm.

“We were happy to have a day off classes,” Lipka said. “We just kind of took it in stride.”

Ford said that due to the cancellation of classes, students “sort of had cabin fever during all the snow.”

Despite the minor inconveniences, Ford’s father, a graduate of 1943, was envious of his son because during his time at Yale — as a student of a war class — the University never canceled classes at all. Indeed, Ford said, they probably “made you go to classes twice or something.”

Levin said he recalls more power outages in the 1978 storm than in the more recent one. Having stayed home with his wife, professor Jane Levin, and two their young children, Levin said he did not go into campus for several days.

Under the leadership of interim President Hanna Gray, the University implemented emergency management strategies that involved coordinating dining services and clearing the roads through campus. But it did not discourage students from going outside, and most do not remember the inconveniences — as Ford joked, the experience of such a blizzard as the one that hit the campus that year is “kind of like childbirth” to think about in retrospect: You retain the happy memories and “forget the hard parts, the adversities imposed.”

“I’m sure they fed us, and I’m sure they kept us all informed,” he said. “The heat in Davenport in 1978 was kind of a hit-or-miss thing … we may have been a little cool. But I remember us being pretty comfortable.”

Bass said he does not remember anyone doing much studying during the blizzard — mostly, students would drift into the jam-packed dining halls and stay for hours, chatting excitedly with their friends. Although televisions and radios kept students up-to-date on state emergency procedures, University information was mostly spread by word of mouth through students and the college deans and masters. For several days, there were questions of when classes would start up again.

Ford and Bass still keep in touch with one another, even though they live on opposite sides of the country — 2,600 miles apart in Los Angeles, Calif., and Arlington, Va. To this day, Ford said, they still talk about the magic of the snow day 35 years ago.

THE SNOW DAY AFTER TOMORROW

Three decades later, the recent snowstorm blanketed campus and caused long-serving faculty members to hearken back to the “Blizzard of ’78.”
Bouffard and Highsmith took charge and, with Sandy fresh in their minds, led the emergency response team in the effort to keep Yale community members safe and sound. Though the team made preparations before the storm, responding to the 34 inches of snow required additional effort.

On Friday night, the snow was falling so thickly it was almost impossible to see. Some brave students attended their normal weekend activities and parties, and a poetry slam took place in the Afro-American Cultural House, though two of the teams could not make it.

This time, Highsmith said the emergency response team did not sleep overnight in a central EOC, so they could sustain their energy over the longer storm.

“If you’re sleeping on the floor of the police station for three or four days, that starts to get pretty stressful,” she said.

So the emergency responders hunkered down in their residences this time around, spending the days on conference calls that included major point people across the campus for emergencies, city officials and state officials. They dialed in for the governor’s conference calls and spoke constantly with the fire chiefs and police chiefs in New Haven. They reviewed essential services like dining and Yale Health and coordinated between residential colleges, shaping plans for the next 24-hour period.

Members of the emergency response team worked around the clock during and after the snow, staying in masters’ houses and the guest suites within residential colleges so they wouldn’t have to travel away from work. Bouffard said team members braved the unplowed roads to pick up staff members who wanted to work but were stranded at home. She added that they even received separate calls to transport two stranded people — a woman in labor and a doctor who needed to deliver a baby — to Yale-New Haven Hospital. (The three made it in time.)

Students emerged from the warmth of their suites to revel in the photo opportunities provided by waist-deep snow, posing with snow banks towering over them at the sides of the roads. The huge mounds disappeared by middle of week, however, freeing up the sidewalks for student traffic between classes. Bouffard said the University had the snow removed and dumped into the Long Island Sound, using a special waiver from the state.

ANOTHER ‘BLIZZARD OF THE CENTURY’

On a car ride back to New Haven, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. — who had just touched down from a trip to Ireland, arriving Sunday afternoon in the midst of the storm — spoke with Levin on the phone about the snow. Peering out at the streets around him, DeStefano considered shutting down all city services and buildings. By the time the two met up in person upon DeStefano’s return, both decided it was most sensible to shut down the University as well.

“We agreed it would be easier if we didn’t have thousands of people leaving their homes to come to work and students coming to school,” Levin said.
Bouffard said the first priority was to clear major arteries on campus, such as Elm Street, so emergency vehicles could have access to campus. Next, the University and city brought payloaders in to clear paths for pedestrians and normal traffic. On Monday, DeStefano and Levin came to another consensus when the mayor told Levin he would prefer the University stayed closed another day.

Bouffard, Highsmith, Levin and Lorimer all noted the importance of communication to the University’s emergency response efforts, both within and outside of Yale.

“A major part of [emergency preparedness] is to develop networks with those in emergency operations in many other places — the state police, the city of New Haven, the FBI,” Lorimer said.

And Yale has developed relationships with emergency preparedness groups at smaller colleges, Lorimer added, where Bouffard helps them develop their programs.

The University’s emphasis on communication during emergencies today allows administrators to reach the entire student body within seconds — a drastic shift from 1978, when updates had to be copied and physically delivered to each Master’s Office.

The Yale community received almost live updates during both Sandy and this month’s blizzard, unable to avoid the phone calls, voicemails, text messages and emails each time the University issued an official emergency notice of warnings or class cancellations. Between 1978 and today, the level of communication has soared.

“I think today, we are generally much more organized about these types of things,” Levin said. “I think we were certainly better trained and better prepared [this year] for these types of things today than what would be the case 35 years ago.”

Lipka, who still keeps in touch with Yale’s campus because his daughter is a current student, said he definitely noticed the “lack of expectation of communication” in 1978. Students 35 years ago did not expect any form of contact from the University, whereas today, students are flooded with information from administrators at every turn to ensure that they receive it. He called it “quite a contrast.”

While students don’t tend to develop attachments to University administrators they never meet, Lorimer has created somewhat of a cult following for herself — perhaps an expected reaction to someone who cancels four days of classes. After students received her emphatic emails throughout both storms, Facebook statuses and tweets thanking Linda Koch Lorimer became chic, and according to Google Trends, Google searches of her name during the snow days more than doubled the previous peak during Sandy. A petition to elect Linda Lorimer as the next Pope circulated the Internet.

Deanna Zhang ’15 said Lorimer is heralded as a hero among students after delivering good news on four occasions.

“She is a god,” Zhang said. “She is everything good in life.”

Lorimer responded that she thought the petition was pretty funny, adding that students at Yale are “extraordinarily humorous and thoughtful” with their praise.

* * *

The question remains — why, after 35 years of holding classes without interruption, has the University had to cancel four classes this year?
Levin called the year “unusual,” but said he couldn’t give further reason for the extreme weather patterns New Haven has seen in the past few months.

“I don’t predict which way the stock market is going to go and I don’t try to predict what’s happening with the weather,” he added.

But Highsmith and Bouffard have another explanation for the cancellations.

“Climate change,” Highsmith said. “I think this is the new normal.” She pointed to Hurricane Irene in 2011 and a snowstorm that October that crippled the state with weeklong power outages, in addition to Hurricane Sandy and the February 2013 snowstorm.

“It is the new normal,” Bouffard added. “Either that, or really bad luck.”

Whether it’s misfortune or worsening weather patterns, Lorimer said the University will respond to whatever the future brings.

“It’s like carrying an umbrella,” she said. “We hope we can prepare for [emergencies], and that they don’t occur.”

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