Although many students had already left for spring break, a brewing winter storm did not prove kind to students still on campus the evening of Friday, March 2. Following 45 mph winds that brought down trees onto power lines, residents of Collegeville experienced a borough-wide power outage that affected all buildings on campus, in addition to road closures. Due to the power outage, Campus Safety evacuated all students living in Main Street houses, according to Director of Campus Safety John Bera.
Bera explained that Ursinus took emergency precautions in compliance with UC’s Emergency Response Plan and Crisis Response Plan during the power outage.
“When there is a power outage, fire alarms and life safety systems, such as sprinkler pumps, are on battery back-up, but will lose power within a few hours,” Bera said. “Main Street houses were evacuated because they do not have extended emergency power capabilities. For safety reasons, we cannot allow students to remain in residence halls without fully operational systems since there is no way of knowing the exact battery life in each house.”
Students were directed toward Lower Wismer, the common areas of residence halls on campus, and the Floy Lewis Bakes Field House, all areas equipped with emergency lighting and heat, according to a campus-wide email sent by Dean Terrence Williams.
When it became clear the outage would last through the night, Emergency Management coordinator Chris Wilcox arranged to borrow temporary sleeping cots from Montgomery County Emergency Management for students to sleep in the Bear’s Den, Bera said.
Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, bags of chips and bottles of water were distributed by Residence Life staff, as the dining halls had already closed for spring break. When power was restored by the PECO Energy company at 6 a.m. on Saturday morning, affected students on Main Street were notified that they could return to their rooms, Bera explained, once Facilities Services verified that the buildings were up to temperature and cleaning staff completed routine cleaning services.
However, not all students were able to return to their rooms—those living in Sixth Avenue houses were still without power on Saturday morning because of an extended outage due to power grid issues, according to Bera. As a result, Student Affairs staff worked with the few affected students by providing temporary rooms until power was restored on Tuesday
Some students evacuated to Lower on Friday were unimpressed with how the night unfolded. As senior Chloe Sheraden was getting comfortable on a couch in Lower Wismer, she noticed students from other parts of campus where shuffling in and out to use the only working power outlets. While some students worked away on papers due by midnight, others unplugged phone chargers to play video-games, Sheraden said.
The Student Activities Office provided board games and pool equipment for students to pass the time, according to Bera.
Resident advisors who were off-duty helped facilitate the situation. Morgan Larese ‘18 and Garrett Bullock ‘20 provided support in Lower Wismer, while Craig Lauer helped in the Floy Lewis Bakes Center.
“I feel like a lot was expected from all students–not just the leadership consultants and the RA’s, who worked in a semi-stressful environment without compensation,” said Sheraden, a SAO leadership consultant, “but all students–because they asked everyone to up and leave their rooms in like 18 minutes, that’s not taught in the CIE curriculum.”
In response to student criticism, Bera explained the reasoning for the prompt evacuation carried out by Campus Safety officers:
“Since we did not know exactly how many students were in the houses, we needed to work quickly to ensure a full evacuation. We walked through each house and checked each room to be sure no one was left behind since we knew we would be securing the buildings,” Bera said. “After students were evacuated, Campus Safety officers were available throughout the night to provide an escort back to a house if any of the students forgot something.”
However, sophomore Rachel Dunne felt the administration was unprepared for a situation, “We were left on our own to figure out what to do in a short period of time. Thankfully [I] knew people that [I] could stay with and [I was] able to get food.”
Around midnight on Friday, Sheraden said there was a mass exodus of students who returned to New and Richter residence halls to stay in their friends’ dorms.
Kaitlyn France, a junior who lives on Main Street, stayed with her rugby teammates in a suite.
“At first when I realized we lost power and were stuck at school, I was definitely annoyed — but my teammates made it fun. We all came together in our suite with every battery-operated light source we had and hung out.”
Some students on Main Street were not satisfied with how the situation was handled, arguing that the evacuation was rushed.
Senior Franny Liberatoscioli said, “I was upset when I got the email because they only gave us a half hour to get out of our building. Yes, they had places for us to go, but it doesn’t give us time to get our stuff in order.”
“It’s poor planning on their part. [The College] should have a kit for every student with emergency materials in case this ever happens again,” said Liberatoscioli.
When asked what the College learned from the power outage incident, Bera explained that EMC Wilcox will compile an after-action review of the incident from which the Student Affairs Response team may improve its response next time.
“Just as the College strives to educate our community in every aspect of life here, we also are able to learn from incidents like this to move forward and tailor our response to crisis incidents,” Bera said. “[With Wilcox’s review], we can train, exercise and educate all of our teammates– including Student Affairs, Safety, Facilities–so that we can provide the best possible experience for our community members here during a difficult situation that is out of our control.”
Additional reporting by Naseem Syed.