Campus / News / January 15, 2014

Polar vortex wreaks havoc on campus

Students venture outside into the cold Sunday, January 5. (Casey Mendoza/TKS)

Students venture outside into the cold Sunday, January 5. (Casey Mendoza/TKS)

After an immediate emergency response and subsequent cleanup effort by college staff, the Knox campus is recovering from winter weather that canceled Knox classes, crippled the region and affected as many as 200 million people nationwide, according to an Associated Press report.

The so-called polar vortex, which dragged in temperatures of minus 15 and wind chills as low as 40 degrees below zero starting last Monday, afflicted many areas of campus, with pipes bursting in SMC and Seymour Union and a heating plant malfunction. But while the extent of the damage is still being assessed by insurance estimators, college administrators praised the cleanup efforts by college staff.

Director of Facilities Services Scott Maust repeatedly applauded facilities and campus safety staff for a “tremendous job” of dealing with the problems faced by their respective departments.

“Our staff did one hell of a job responding,” Maust said. “There was no hesitation when they were called in to work.”

The sheer severity of the cold caused the boiler malfunction and the bursting pipes, Maust said. Although he and Campus Safety Director John Schlaf discussed basic personnel considerations in preparation for the storm, they did not anticipate the extent of the damage.

According to Schlaf, the pipes undergo regular inspections by the Galesburg Fire Department and Campus Safety, and the alarms functioned properly so the leaks could be contained as soon as possible.

“The area here is not used to, and our buildings aren’t designed for, 20 below zero with a wind chill of 40 or 50 below,” Maust said. And although Maust said this was the coldest weather and most severe facilities malfunction since he has worked at Knox, the boiler system recovery and flood cleanup was smoother than he anticipated.

Students also felt the emergency situation was handled well, offering similar thanks for college staff.

“It was definitely cold enough to merit the cancellation of classes on Monday, and thank you to everyone in dining service for managing to get us all fed,” freshman Gregg Miller said.

Sophomore Tawni Sasaki called cancelling classes the “safest option.” Freshman J.J. Nawrot appreciated the paths that were plowed to help students get around campus, but he was concerned that not enough salt was used to prevent ice from forming along those paths.

In the wake of the dangerous weather, Dean of Students Debbie Southern told the Student Life Committee that a new Emergency Management Group is being formed. Headed by Chief Information Officer Steve Hall, the group will primarily seek to redefine a “campus closure,” given that a residential campus is never closed when classes are in session.

Schlaf mentioned the merits of that discussion, but he believes the campus emergency guidelines functioned as they were designed, bringing together top administrators and communications officials to a sort of command center, from which the emergency response can be directed.

“The plan doesn’t have specific steps, but general guidelines as to what to do in the event of an emergency situation,” Schlaf said.

Steps are now being taken to prevent any future problems with freezing pipes, as facilities staff are working to repair cracks in the SMC walls, through which cold air can enter, and a third party firm has been hired to install insulation in Seymour Union.

“Every time something like this takes place, we try to debrief with all the parties involved, and we try to decide if there are some things that did not go well,” Schlaf said. “If we can identify what those things are, we then try to make changes so that the next time around, that won’t be an issue.”

Tags:  cold facilities pipes polar vortex scott maust snow

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