Power outage leaves campus in the dark

Tanya Marsh

Tanya Marsh

When last week’s blizzard dumped 10 to 16 inches of snow on the Brookings area, more havoc was created than just a day and a half of classes cancelled.

Snow packing into sophisticated electrical equipment shut down power to most of the university Wednesday night, causing more missed classes, not to mention a shortage of light and heat.

According to Mike Reger, executive vice-president of administration, the power outage was caused by the malfunction of “a huge circuit breaker” on the north side of campus.

“It blew out, literally,” he said. “It was all based on that one piece of equipment.”

From approximately 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., two-thirds of campus was without electricity, including all residence halls except Berg and Bailey.

“Everything is fine and it’s running now,” Reger said. Although re-routing the power around the equipment failure was a temporary fix, “the system should hold the way it is.”

Plans were made for dorm-dwellers to spend the night in academic buildings on campus, including the library and the barn. If the temperature had gone below 45 degrees, residents would have been evacuated.

“We were prepared to move mattresses and bedding into the barn,” he said.

“We would make whatever arrangements we would need to make to keep everyone comfortable.”

Douglas Wermedal, assistant dean of student affairs, said the power loss was of big concern to the university.

“Our first concern was for students’ safety,” he said. “Two things that came to mind right away were darkness and cold.”

Wermedal said the other power outage SDSU has had was in August of 1999, when light and heat were not such big concerns.

Still, this prior blackout experience helped the university react quickly.

“We’ve had experience with buying every flashlight in Brookings,” he said.

In addition to buying out the flashlight supply in town, Wermedal said crews were sent to Watertown and Sioux Falls to procure more flashlights and batteries.

“We had a minimum of 1,500 flashlights plus batteries to get in mail boxes before it got dark. That’s one flashlight per room, and we got them out.”

Sophomore Lindsay Distel, a journalism major, thought the university put forth a great effort to make students comfortable during the blackout.

“I think they did all that they could do,” she said. “They went and bought flashlights, and when we ran out of them in Brookings, they drove to Sioux Falls to get more.”

Heating, the second major concern, never got to be an issue, Wermedal said.

“No one knows how long the halls can go [without heat] before becoming uncomfortable,” he said. “They’re brick and block construction, so the heat they do get they hang onto really well.”

In addition, Wermedal said the lack of wind and making sure windows were closed helped the halls to hold heat.

A plan was made to evacuate students from the dorms if the power was not back and the dorms became cold. However, that proved not to be necessary.

All the residence halls had power back on by 9:30 that night, and some had it even earlier.

Distel, however, wasn’t about to wait around for the power to come back on.

“Me and a bunch of my friends decided to go to a hotel about 7 p.m.,” she said. “They gave a discount to people in the dorms at the Fairfield Inn.”

The unexpected hotel stay wasn’t the only part of the power outage that put a cramp in Distel’s day. “My German class was canceled when the power went out, and I couldn’t watch Passions,” she said. In addition, another of Distel’s classes that was to meet in the Rotunda took the time to make a snowy trek to Shepherd Hall to have class in a room with a window.

Distel said her volleyball practice and scheduled lifting time were both canceled because power was out in the HPER.

Besides heat and light, how to feed hungry students without electricity was another major problem. John Sterbis, Director of Dining Services, said it was a challenge.

“First we had to get power in the building ? we rented generators and rigged up lights in the kitchen and Marketplace dining room,” he said. “And then we rented propane grills to cook burgers and hot dogs and then we had to find food, because what we had on the menu wasn’t going to work anymore. We got buns from Sioux Falls.”

Eventually, what came to be known as the “Power-outage Picnic” took place, with students enjoying burgers, hot dogs, chips, fruit and pop.

“We served about 600 students,” Sterbis said.

Another challenge for Dining Services was providing warm food to dorm residents. “We supplied hot chocolate and cookies for 2,700 residence hall students,” he said.

Wermedal was impressed with Dining Service’s reaction to the problem.

“I really do have to applaud Aramark’s response,” he said. “They, in a matter of four hours, came up with a way to feed that many people in the dark.” He said aside from the grills and the generator-operated lights, battery-operated card swipers were rigged up so students wouldn’t have to pay for their meals with cash.

Dining Services personnel weren’t the only ones deserving kudos for their reaction to the situation, Wermedal said. He was proud of how students handled the power outage.

“Students had fun with it,” he said. “People actually kind of seemed to enjoy it a little bit, as a break from the routine.”

He said at residence hall meetings, the atmosphere was light through the darkness.

“Everyone seemed to have a sense of humor about it and that made the whole thing bearable,” he said.

Even the “picnic” had a good atmosphere. “The mood there was really upbeat.

Students were ready to have fun with it ? the short-term outage didn’t seem to be a profound issue.”

In addition, Wermedal had high praise for the technicians.

“I was so pleased that they were able to effect repairs of that kind of equipment as swiftly as they did.” He said the physical plant crew and others who worked to repair the equipment were “the real heroes of the night ? that and how the students reacted.”