Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Best Laid Plans...

On Friday morning, a construction crew that was installing a backup generator on campus hit a gas main, forcing an evacuation.

As dramatic as that was, at least it happened on Friday.  We had both of our graduation ceremonies on Thursday. An evacuation then would have been much worse.  Friday was a relatively light day, as far as people on campus go. It was “Scholars’ Day,” which is an annual professional development day on which faculty and staff present to each other some research or projects they’ve been working on.  It’s a relaxed, collegial day between graduation and the start of the first (and highest enrolled) summer session the following Monday.

That means there weren’t any students on campus, and even the staff was light.  That made both the evacuation and the subsequent communications easier.

The problem with a gas leak is that the danger is mostly theoretical until it very much isn’t, at which point the damage is done.  I saw that as folks gathered in the parking lots on the opposite side of campus. They (we) were discussing when and whether to actually leave.  People were still showing up, so there was some redirecting to do. The president was off campus, so I was the ranking person on campus, and I noticed people looking to me for cues.  When I told them to get off campus, they stayed put because I did. When I figured that out, I set the example by driving across the street to the parking lot of a neighboring church; that seemed to open the floodgates.  Folks arrived quickly at the church.

The most frustrating part of the enterprise was the partial information and spotty communication.  I was in touch with the president, who was being briefed by county officials and, presumably, campus police.  For a while, it wasn’t clear how quickly the leak would be plugged. Had we known immediately that it would take as long as it did, we could have made the call to close for the day much more quickly than we did.  But at first, it seemed like it could be a relatively quick fix.

Worse, there wasn’t really a single designated area.  We were advised to go to the church; a subsequent RAVE alert directed everyone to a nearby park.  Others set up base camp at nearby Dunkin’ Donuts or McDonald’s. I was with the group at the church, which included a few dozen people.  Happily, the folks working in the church were welcoming, and allowed us to use the facilities as needed. And the weather was perfect, which made hanging out much more pleasant than it could have been.

Initially, I had hoped that some of the discussions could happen outside.  (Fellow Williams grads know the old line about Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.)  But most of them required PowerPoint or similar tech, which wasn’t really an option. And with the prospective audience scattered among multiple sites, there wasn’t really critical mass in any one place.  

As phone calls bounced back and forth, it eventually became clear that even after the leak was fixed -- and nothing exploded -- there would still be an odor of gas lingering in various parts of campus.  Aside from the obvious aesthetic issue, it was a safety issue in itself; if there’s an ambient odor of gas anyway, nobody might notice a new leak. We closed for the day.

We postponed the presentations until the day after Convocation in the fall, which is usually devoted to meetings.  Because staff from the various branch campuses and offsite locations had previously been directed to close for the day and come to the main campus for Scholars’ Day, we just wound up sending everybody home.  

In moments like those, you discover certain things that you might not know otherwise.  For example, while it’s easy to send a “broadcast” email from my desktop, it’s impossible from my phone.  The communications team struggled a bit with notifications. And while people want immediate answers, sometimes those answers aren’t immediately available.  I’ve also never been quite as grateful that we have a non-smoking campus. One idiot with a lighter could have ruined the whole day.

The good news, aside from the fact that the leak was fixed without anything blowing up, is that people were generally on their best behavior.  “Disasterologists” -- people who study the responses to disasters, a field that I totally would have studied if I had known it existed -- like to point out that the stereotype of people immediately devolving into a Hobbesian war of each against all isn’t true; in fact, disasters tend to bring out the best in people.  (Rebecca Solnit’s book “A Paradise Built in Hell” details that.) That’s what I saw. Everybody wanted to be helpful, and even the complaining was mostly in the spirit of offering solutions.

I had been slated to be the opening speaker for Scholars’ Day.  When I got the call that we were officially closing for the day, I stepped up on a curb and announced “we’re closing for the day.”  As soon as I stepped down, someone walked up and told me it was the best speech she’d ever seen me give. And entirely without a script!

Shortly after getting home, of course, the detail-y messages started coming in.  “Could this still count as a day on the annual faculty professional development report?”  Yes. “Some people couldn’t get to their offices. Could we have another day to turn in the grades?”  Yes. There’s always a loose end somewhere. I expect to discover a few more over the next few days.

Still, while there’s no such thing as a good gas leak, this was probably one of the least-bad kinds we could have had.  Nothing blew up. No students were around. It was the day after graduation, rather than the day of. The weather made waiting outside reasonably pleasant.  The neighbors were kind. Everybody was on their best behavior.

This week will bring the “what happened?” discussions.  I’m thinking step one will be figuring out how to do mass emails from my phone...