Campus prepares as Sandy trickles through Pittsburgh

After days of emergency preparation, media coverage, and nervous anticipation, Hurricane Sandy’s impact on Pittsburgh turned out to be limited. In contrast to the state of New Jersey and the city of New York, in Pittsburgh the weather merely amounted to high winds and moderate downpour early last week.

Despite these mild effects, the preparations made by campus facilities to brave the possible storm were substantial.

An official university weather alert was emailed out to the student body Monday afternoon, declaring, “The National Weather Service in Pittsburgh has issued a high wind warning through noon Tuesday and a flood watch through Tuesday evening as a result of Hurricane Sandy.”

The email went on to advise, “During severe winds please stay away from windows as high wind could bring down trees and power lines. Use caution when traveling and do not touch downed power lines. Also, please secure lightweight objects outdoors, or bring them indoors.”

An update was released later that afternoon on the university website, with additional advice: “The storm is expected to reach its peak in Pittsburgh tonight between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m. If possible, stay indoors during this time ... If you must travel outdoors, please do so with a group of people so that others are present in the event that someone is injured.”

Madelyn Miller, the director of Environmental Health & Safety, said, “We were tracking Sandy for days. As it got closer, we were checking with the national weather service for hour-by-hour predictions.”

“The nice thing about hurricanes is that we have plenty of notice,” she added.

Don Coffelt, the director of Facilities Management Services, was described by Chief of University Police Thomas Ogden as “the incident commander” who spearheaded the effort for campus preparation.

“I was reading the National Weather Service briefings as early as Saturday,” Coffelt said. He was able to have facilities personnel do preparatory work on Saturday, and even bring in commercial contractors to help prepare campus.

Some of the steps taken were removing leaves from storm drains and setting up sand bags to prevent potential flooding.

Ogden said the police preparations involved changing from standard eight-hour shifts to 10 hours, relocating smaller police vehicles and using SUVs with greater ground clearance, tripling the number of guards on campus, and using a Chevy Tahoe truck, which had been retrofitted into a “mobile command post” with supplies.

“Campus police needs to be self-sustaining for 30 to 60 minutes during an emergency, in case Pittsburgh police cannot get here immediately,” Ogden said.

As of Saturday and Sunday, Coffelt was in touch with Miller, University Police, Director of Housing and Dining Services Kim Able, and Michael Murphy, the vice president of campus affairs.

Coffelt was pleased with how the situation was resolved, even if it was “ just a Seattle kind of rain." He said, “We over-responded a little bit — but that’s okay."

Ogden remarked, “I was very, very pleased. I thought that the University did a fantastic job.”

Miller, Coffelt, and Ogden all agreed that the hurricane warnings gave the campus a large amount of time to prepare. “We were able to start planning five days before,” Ogden said.

“The difference is that the forecasting with an event like this gives you more time to plan,” Coffelt said. “You can only do so much when thunderstorms are predicted.”

Miller stressed that students should clarify statements that they are unsure of, when they receive notification of a severe weather event. “When there’s ambiguity students don’t ask questions,” she said.

Coffelt emphasized the need to communicate the “little things” to students, such as closing their windows, since open windows can end up causing as much damage to buildings as larger floods and leaks.

While not necessary in this most recent instance, Ogden asserted that during severe weather, “the biggest issue is to stay in.”

Vijay Viswanathan, a first-year mathematics major, felt reassured by the weather warnings.

“I got similar emails from many different people, and they were pretty standard recommendations, but I thought I was better off having known about it,” he said.