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Northwestern Socked By Blizzard

University in historic moment closes because of monstrous snowstorm

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February 3, 2011 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel

Until Wednesday, Northwestern University had been closed because of weather only three times in the University’s 160-year history. But the 20-inch snowfall and raging winds that socked the Chicago area, starting Tuesday afternoon, convinced University officials it was time to make history again.

On Wednesday, in terms of faculty and staff, the campus was quiet. But Facilities Management crews labored overtime throughout the storm and all day Wednesday, clearing campus sidewalks, parking lots and roadways. By Thursday morning, almost all the campus lots and paths were clear.

“It was a continuing battle through Wednesday morning because of the high winds and heavy snow, but we were able to really make progress during the day Wednesday,” said Gary Wojtowicz, director of Facilities Management operations.

Leading up to the storm, the University’s emergency operations group, headed by University Police Chief Bruce Lewis, continually monitored weather conditions and the University’s preparedness.

Facilities Management (FM) had 10 tons of aluminum chloride on hand and additional supplies of salt. All crews were on duty with additional temporary workers and outside contractors assisting in the snow removal efforts. University plows also assisted the City of Evanston in clearing side streets near campus.

Through the continual monitoring of weather conditions on both campuses, the team was able to make recommendations to senior administrators regarding the cancellation of classes Tuesday night and the closing of the Evanston and Chicago campuses on Wednesday.

“The decision to close the University is obviously one we consider carefully, but, given the conditions, we were very concerned about the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff,” said Eugene Sunshine, senior vice president for business and finance.

And communication about the weather-related decisions, sent through the emergency notification system, worked very well, according to Alan Cubbage, vice president for University Relations. “Most importantly,” he said, “we were able to deliver information to students, faculty and staff on the two campuses within minutes throughout the emergency.”

Of paramount importance, students were safe throughout the ordeal. Fifteen students, however, got stranded on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago on Tuesday evening after two inter-campus shuttles, along with hundreds of other vehicles, were stopped in their tracks because of the worsening conditions on the city’s main lakefront thoroughfare. All stranded students were accounted for by 11 p.m. Tuesday.

Making sure that students had access to food also was of primary importance in the planning. On the Evanston campus, a couple of dining facilities were fully operational and at full staff, and two operated with a reduced staff.

The willingness of staff to do whatever was necessary to accommodate students stood out for Burgwell Howard, dean of students. “About a half dozen members of my staff ran home, threw a few things in a bag and came back to campus to do whatever was needed,” he said. They stayed on campus or at area hotels, as did a number of other members of the emergency team.

Student affairs employees also worked from home in a concerted communication effort to keep students, on and off of campus, continually informed about housing, meals, counseling and other University and City of Evanston services during the disruption of business as usual.

Students largely abided by the safety warnings to stay inside as much as possible and avoid the lakefront area of the Evanston campus. Then after Storm 2011 officially ended on Wednesday, about 250 students congregated for a giant snowball fight near the library.

More Highlights

Battle with Snow and Wind

• Snow removal focused on residence halls and dining facility access on Wednesday.

• Power brooms couldn’t be used for snow removal because of high winds, so bobcat bucket trucks were used instead.

• Northwestern personnel worked throughout the night on Tuesday and Wednesday keeping up with the removal of snow, battling extraordinarily high drifts and working around abandoned cars in lots, and dumping snow into the lake.

University Police

• University Police vehicles were stationed in strategic positions throughout campus, and officers rallied to help each other push cars stuck in the snow.

• University Police officers went out of their way to get to work, including Officer Richard Ryzewski, whose vehicle was snowed in. On Wednesday morning, he started to walk four miles to work but fortunately got a ride from a Chicago Police Officer at Pratt and Western in Chicago to the Evanston border, where he was picked up by University Police.

Communications

• E-mails were sent out system wide. Two messages went out on Tuesday, first advising that classes were canceled that night, and then at approximately 10:35 p.m., announcing that the University would be closed on Wednesday. The final message on Wednesday announced both campuses would reopen on Thursday. Through the emergency notification system, 31,594 e-mails and 25,994 text messages were sent instantly to all students, faculty and staff on both campuses. In addition, the information was posted in Breaking News on the Northwestern home page and sent to all Chicago-area media.

Shuttle service

• On Tuesday evening, all Evanston loop and campus loop shuttle service operations were canceled due to hazardous conditions.

• University shuttles did not operate on the Evanston and Chicago campuses Wednesday, with the exception of campus train-shuttle vehicles that operated on the Chicago campus.

Power

• Anticipated power outages did not occur on the Evanston campus.

• Power was lost for a short period on the Chicago campus on Tuesday evening, and emergency power was employed in critical areas. ComEd responded quickly.