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Blizzard causes rare Institute closing

Storm closings at MIT are a rare event.

The last one more than 10 years ago was for Hurricane Gloria in October 1985, and before that was the blizzard of 1978, when the Institute was shut down for several days.

So it was no small matter when Joan F. Rice, vice president for human resources and the person who makes the call at MIT, decided on Monday, Jan. 8, to shut the Institute for all but essential personnel.

What the media called the Blizzard of '96 was swirling outside and Ms. Rice, who had been up since 4am listening to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather radio, had every reason to believe it would continue snowing throughout the day-as it did.

She also learned from Robert W. Hagerty, manager of grounds services for Physical Plant, that a closing would enable his crews, still dealing with earlier storms, to battle the new snow without interference from pedestrian and auto traffic.

Ms. Rice, who has had the responsibility for closings for a dozen years, said there have been some early releases for weather and days when employees haven't lost pay for coming in late. But she said that conditions have to be "outrageous" before she'll close the Institute.

And, in this case, she decided, they were just that.

"There was so much snow blowing, as well as coming down, that visibility was impossible and the storm was going to continue," she explained.

Her decision was made somewhat easier by the fact that the storm hit between semesters. A previous storm, for example, had occurred during finals week, and closing the Institute could have caused chaos. The same would be true if the Institute closed during registration, she said.

So Ms. Rice called the police dispatcher and told him to put the closing message on the 253-SNOW line.

He called her back to make sure it had been a legitimate call.

After 10 minutes or so, she called the line to make certain the message had been changed from Institute open to Institute closed.

But her day wasn't over.

From her home in Cambridge, she continued checking conditions both at MIT and Lincoln Laboratory to determine whether the second and third shifts should report. She called off the second shift, but the Institute reopened for the third shift at 11pm.

Ms. Rice has been asked by some employees to put any future closing messages out at 5am rather than 6am, and she will make every effort to do so, she said.

And she will also be clearer about whether classes are canceled, she said. She hadn't been aware that there are now some required classes during IAP, she explained, and thus there had been some confusion, for which she was sorry.

Meanwhile, as the storm raged, essential personnel had made their way to campus.

And who were they?

They were Mr. Hagerty's crew, of course, and the police, and care providers-doctors and nurses-in the Medical Department.

Chief Anne P. Glavin said her officers had a "very quiet" day, mostly assisting grounds crew personnel when vehicles had to be towed to permit plowing. "There were no major emergencies," she said.

Annette Jacobs, executive director of the medical department, said staffing there was at the same level used for weekends and after-hours coverage. There were no regular appointment hours.

A nearly full crew of close to 40 persons reported for duty at the Division of Comparative Medicine, which houses laboratory animals.

"All our animal care technicians are deemed essential," said Sean M. Sullivan, assistant animal resources manager, "and they feel good about coming in and taking care of the little guys."

As for the Physical Plant, Victoria V. Sirianni, the director, said she plans to clarify who is essential and who is not, but that she was gratified by the response of her employees.

"We even had seven mail workers come in" and, working with Penny Guyer, manager of MIT Mail Services, took care of the mail on hand, Ms. Sirianni said. "It was a wonderful sight.

"Actually, we were heavily staffed, and didn't have to make any calls," she said. "We had many, many tradespeople come in-four or five plumbers and nine heat and vent mechanics-and we had a supervisor in every shop."

The Central Utility Plant was fully staffed and quite a few custodians reported for the day shift, she said, adding that the supervisor from the previous night shift, George Carney, stayed on all day and that some of the custodians worked longer shifts as well.

MIT buildings came through the storm very well, Ms. Sirianni said, with a few leaks from frozen pipes.

There were still other essential personnel, including some employees in computer operations, Ms. Rice, said, but she doesn't have a list, leaving it to supervisors to make arrangements for coverage in all situations.

A rule of thumb, she said, is if you haven't been told you're essential, then you're not.

One person who was uncertain about his designation was MIT President Charles M. Vest, who called Ms. Rice to ask if he were essential.

She told him he wasn't, but that he might want to grab a shovel.

In response to an inquiry from The Tech, Dr. Vest had this to say about his activities:

"Actually, I did a very small amount of shoveling, but I had to do it quickly because our Plant people did a fantastic job of keeping the campus clear, working all night and all day.

"After learning that I was nonessential, I reported for work anyway, following my morning jog. I spent the morning in the office with one stalwart staff member, but went home just before noon. There was no one here to meet with, and no one in Washington or New York [hit even harder by the storm] answered their phones.

"In the afternoon, I answered my e-mail, finished the last chapter of No Ordinary Time, Doris Goodwin's excellent biography of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, and spent the rest of the day catching up on several work-related reports and articles.

"Becky [Mrs. Vest] and I also took our dog for a long walk around the campus, but the dog turns out to be severely frightened of snow plows."

As Dr. Vest suggested, the real heroes of the storm may have been the grounds crews.

A nearly full crew of 36 people came in by 6pm on Sunday, Jan. 6, along with Mr. Hagerty and supervisors, and stayed on the job until 10pm on January 8, a stretch of nearly 30 hours. There were "safety" breaks for meals and enough sleep to keep the crews alert, he said.

The crews continued cleaning up and removing snow in the days following the storm and finally got some help from nature when a January thaw arrived late last week.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 24, 1996.

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