February 22, 2010

Whiteout: JHU vs. the snow of 2010 … Epic blizzard shut down university–but not all its staff

Epic blizzard shuts down university--but not all its staff

Mark Selivan, grounds manager for the Homewood campus, clearly recalls his Snowmageddon “cry uncle” moment. It came late on Feb. 10, the day a second storm unkindly dumped another 20 inches of snow on an area still reeling from 30-plus inches left from the previous weekend.

Selivan stood on the horseshoe steps leading down to the Wyman Quadrangle as the wind whipped around him at nearly 50 mph. Shovel in hand, he desperately tried to clear the steps as the fast-driving snow covered up his boot tracks with each lumbering step he took.

“I remember staring down into the quad and just thinking, I’ve had enough,” he said. “I think I was barely holding on at that point.”

Selivan called that wintry Wednesday evening his Battle of the Little Bighorn. Unlike Custer, he and his comrades in arms lived to fight—or shovel, in this case—another day.

In the face of an epic blizzard, hundreds of university staff—librarians, IT professionals, food and housing employees, medical workers, maintenance crews and others—braved the weather conditions and worked day and night to keep the university campuses accessible to essential personnel, and basic functions up and running.

The snow caused the university to officially close its doors from Monday, Feb. 8, to Friday Feb. 12, a nearly unprecedented loss of days during the academic calendar. The last recent significant string of snow closures occurred in 1996 and 2003, but neither episode caused the university to close five consecutive days.

No wonder: The official Homewood campus tally of accumulation from the two storms clocked in at a whopping 51.7 inches—the worst two-day blizzard in the Baltimore area since 1922. The storms crippled roadways and caused life-threatening conditions. Baltimore’s mayor ordered Phase III of the city’s snow emergency plan, which banned travel on streets except for emergency vehicles until 5 a.m. on Thursday. Baltimore had not been in a Phase III emergency since the snowstorm of 1996.

Hundreds of trees fell on streets, cars and homes. Streets were blocked with snow and abandoned cars.

Although the university remained closed, life continued on its campuses for some modicum of work and play, and a great deal of cleanup.

At Homewood, an army of groundskeepers and custodial, housing and maintenance shop staff tirelessly battled the snow with an arsenal of shovels, snow blowers, compact tractors and tons of snow-melting material. At the height of the second storm, 50 staff were on hand.

A large crew came in on Tuesday night and remained until the weekend. They slept in cots or on available couches, but only in three-hour stretches. Otherwise, they were outside clearing snow, often in bitter cold, blowing, snowy, dark conditions, and at considerable risk to themselves due to falling trees and limbs.

“We used lots of elbow grease,” said David Ashwood, director of plant operations for the Homewood campus and one of those who helped dig the campus out. “We had people out there around the clock. Once the snow gets compacted, it’s pretty difficult to remove, so we did our best to stay on top of it. But quite frankly, it was a ridiculous amount of snow. We had blinding conditions, the wind was blowing, and wet and heavy snow was piling up two to three feet. This was a once-every-100 years event.”

Ashwood said that the goal was to keep the main arteries into campus open and building entrances accessible. Crews also made sure that students had access to the O’Connor Recreation Center and the Milton S. Eisenhower Library.

Much of the original snow was piled into mounds. After the second storm, huge piles from Homewood were loaded into haulers and dropped onto the parking lot at Johns Hopkins at Eastern.

The Homewood campus suffered no loss of power, Ashwood said, but there were some roof leaks that were quickly fixed. Several trees fell during the storm.

On the East Baltimore campus, Facilities Management staff worked with Baltimore City crews to clear the roads and sidewalks around The Johns Hopkins Hospital and the medical campus buildings.

Howie Gwon, incident commander in the Office of Emergency Management for the School of Medicine and the hospital, said that staff were called in before the storms hit to ensure that the hospital was running 24-7. Nearly 1,400 staff stayed overnight at the hospital, including doctors, nurses, clinicians, custodial staff, IT personnel and security guards. During one 24-hour period, more than 1,200 hospital staff were on hand, and they slept on cots, air mattresses, chairs and available beds.

Gwon’s team made sure supplies and food could be delivered. He also supervised a team of 80 drivers who were sent out to pick up essential staff from their homes.

“At the height of the storm, we stopped sending out drivers since the conditions were so bad,” said Gwon, nicknamed “the master of disaster.” “This was the worst storm I’ve seen in the 20 years I’ve been here. But it’s my job to stay calm and collected, and be there to help in anyway I can. I will say that people here really stepped up to the plate. It was a great show of teamwork.”

Stephanie Reel, the university’s vice provost for information technologies and vice president for information services for Johns Hopkins Medicine, said that Johns Hopkins was both prepared and somewhat fortunate to keep computer networks and telecommunications lines running smoothly during the storms.

“Some of our technologies allowed many of our employees to work from home. We used collaboration tools like Confluence and Sharepoint, instant messenger, e-mail and teleconferencing technologies to ensure that we were still able to answer Help Desk calls, respond to problems and deploy solutions,” Reel said.

In addition to the remote work, Reel said that roughly 40 IT employees braved the elements and drove or walked into their offices during the snowed-in week. Some Johns Hopkins Hospital IT staff stayed overnight for two or three consecutive days, and another nine employees stayed overnight at the Mount Washington campus to provide coverage for the primary Help Desk, phone center and data center.

“It was a special week, and lots of folks enjoyed the opportunity to serve our patients, students, faculty and staff during the double dump of snow,” Reel said. “We have a truly amazingly wonderful group of dedicated, committed and caring individuals.”

The Bloomberg School of Public Health’s main building remained opened for essential personnel and research. Prior to the blizzard, the school’s facilities team rented a front-end loader, which was used to remove snow from parking areas behind office areas.

Many top-level university officials were on their campuses and showed support to the staff who were working and away from family for days. On one of his stops, President Ronald J. Daniels brought coffee and doughnuts to the staff at Homewood Communications Center, which serves as the hub for campus security.

For students stuck on the Homewood campus, Residential Life staff, both professional and RAs, hosted a broad range of activities, such as movie and game nights, according to Susan Boswell, dean of student life.

The Digital Media Center stayed open and offered a broad range of video game activities. The O’Connor Recreation Center was packed most days as students took advantage of the opportunity to get some exercise in during what would normally be class time. Fresh Food Cafe remained well stocked and busy.

Boswell said that staff interacted with students electronically and by phone to address difficulties that arose.

Bill Harrington, director of the O’Connor Recreation Center, said that the center “did not miss a single hour” of its usual schedule. Professional and student staff stayed overnight to keep the facility up and running.

“While grounds and plant operations did a great job of making the rounds on the steps and walks, our staff also kept things going during the height of the storm by shoveling and salting continuously,” Harrington said. “Additionally, we were plowing Homewood Field almost continuously in order to stay ahead of the accumulation. The [sports] teams have been able to practice outside every day except Wednesday.”

Harrington said that when the center opened in January 2002, he and his staff made a conscious decision to make every effort to serve the students to the best of their abilities.

“We have only closed for weather reasons one time, and that was a hurricane. Attendance during the storm was about as high as normal for February. The facility was actually more crowded during the day, when students would normally be in class,” he said.

The MSE Library’s Q and M levels remained opened, thanks to security staff. Librarians were available remotely just about every day, providing online reference support from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Ellen Keith, a reference services coordinator for the MSE Library who worked from her Mount Washington apartment, said that she and her colleagues answered student e-mails, updated the library’s Web site and monitored the library’s Twitter account. Students asking questions about fines for books and DVDs that were due were told that any fines accrued during the period would be waved.

“We also had students contacting us about reference materials for research projects,” she said. “We did our best to answer all their questions in a timely fashion.”

The William H. Welch Medical Library was officially closed, but librarians were available remotely. Library staff also made house calls, of sorts. Victoria Goode, a clinical information specialist at Welch Library, met a team of researchers at the Barnes & Noble Johns Hopkins bookstore in Charles Village to assist in organizing a systematic literature review.

The WelchWeb site had 19,194 total visits during the snow week.

When not in a gym or library, students had fun and got creative in the snow.

Homewood students built snowmen, waged massive snowball fights and carved out a lounge area, snow chairs and all, on The Beach. They also sledded down Homewood hills and staircases on cardboard boxes, plastic-bin tops and cafeteria trays provided by Housing and Dining Services.

Peabody students, including one Alaska native, built an impressive igloo on the school’s courtyard on the Thursday after the second wave of snow.

To make up for lost days, some of the university’s schools have decided to alter their academic calendar.

Officials in the Krieger and Whiting schools, in consultation with faculty and student leaders, decided to extend the semester and compress some activities. The last day of classes was originally scheduled for April 30, with the final day for examinations May 13. The revised schedule, in an effort to recapture the lost week of classes, will have May 7 as the last day of classes and May 16 as the last day of finals.

The university looked into canceling spring break and scheduling makeup classes in the evenings and on weekends but decided that both options would be too disruptive.

SAIS will extend its semester four days, using May 3 through May 6 as makeup days. Friday classes that were missed will be made up with other arrangements. If any additional days are lost due to snow, weekends would be used to make up those days.

The Carey Business School will add a week to its spring term.

No major changes to the academic calendar are planned at this time for Peabody and the schools of Education, Medicine, Nursing and Public Health.

As of press time, facilities crews were still busily crunching up and removing snow from Baltimore campuses.

Speaking with The Gazette last week, Selivan said he was still exhausted from the many sleepless nights of snow removal.

A self-described weather junkie, Selivan added that he was tracking another “snow event,” due to hit the area early this week. To that, he could only smile and let out a small laugh.

“We’ll be ready for it,” he said.