Polar vortex brings fire and ice to MU

Michael Mongera, Contributing writer

2019’s polar vortex did not leave Erie unscathed as both the northern United States and Canada froze up during the last week of January.

Due to the exceedingly cold temperatures Jan. 30 and 31, all classes were canceled on all Mercyhurst campuses.

President Michael T. Victor sent out a campuswide email on Jan. 29 addressing the situation.

“The safety of our students, faculty and staff is our highest priority. Due to the impending brutally cold weather, Mercyhurst University and its campuses will close Wednesday and Thursday, January 30-31,” the email said.

This cold weather phenomena happens when low pressure contained by the north pole weakens. This causes the jet stream to falter and deliver arctic air southward. During this time, temperatures ranged from minus 4 to minus 61 across the United States.

Added with wind chills, the extreme cold has killed dozens and endangered many others across the nation. Frost bite could occur within minutes, causing many other midwestern schools and universities to close for a few days.
“I’m glad the school cares about our safety on those days because often over where I live, they don’t shovel by the time I leave for class,” senior anthropology major Lauren Harrison said. “Since many of the students walk a lot to and from class, being outside in those temperatures is dangerous.”

Even though classes were canceled, dining halls remained open during normal hours and essential personnel, including Police and Safety, Maintenance and Residence Life, were still on campus and available for student access. All events for clubs, academics and athletics beginning the evening of Jan. 29, except for the Postmodern Jukebox concert, were canceled for the two-day polar vortex.

Mercyhurst maintenance employees followed a specific protocol to protect themselves while working outside. Workers only went out for 30 minutes at a time before returning inside for another 30 minutes. Without classes in session, there was more flexibility to clear the walkways without students walking to and from class.

Students were advised to stay inside as much as possible to avoid the dangers that the bitter cold brought. For a majority, the student body took the time to keep on their studies or enjoy spending time inside relaxing.

Senior Music Therapy major Josh Phillips spent most of his time in the Mary D’Angelo Performing Arts Center.

“I locked myself away in the Music department and worked on music for senior composition recital,” Phillips said.

While Phillips evaded the cold in favor of his studies, freshman Education major Alyssa Norcross took the time to communicate with her fellow Warde Hall residents and make some new friends.
“I spent time with friends and got to meet some people on my floor that I never got to meet before,” Norcross said.

However, some Wayne Street apartment residents found themselves unable to hide away in their residences. An electrical fire broke in the basement of the Wayne 745 apartment, causing power outages in some adjacent Wayne apartments as well.

Residents were evacuated from Wayne 745. Students grabbed as many of their belongings as they could before the building was closed for the weekend.

Senior Intelligence Studies major, Alyssa Kerns vividly remembered what happened the morning of the fire.

“I was in my room when it all happened, and I live across the hall from the electric closet, so I was one of the first to smell the smoke,” Kerns said. “I remember the power went out in my room, so I went out to check the living room and that’s where I could smell the smoke.”

That specific apartment complex is all electric. With everyone home and using furnaces, stoves and other electrical appliances, it over-loaded the circuit. Mercyhurst Facilities Manager Tom Fabrizio explained in greater detail how this happened.

“Typically that is a 400 amp service coming in at the time we were drawing in 600 amps,” Fabrizio said. “It melted the lines underground that go to the transformer. It fused the line right to the pipe and basically welded itself.”

A new electrical service was put in to combat the issue. Maintenance was initially concerned with water pipes freezing. Faucet lines were turned on to prevent this from happening.

Mercyhurst provided hotel accommodations for those displaced by the fire. Kerns reflected on her time away from Wayne.

“They were great with providing us with accommodations,” Kerns said. “They gave us free meals until Sunday and even paid for us to stay in a nice hotel about 10 minutes from campus.”

Students had access to a free continental breakfast and to the pool and hot tub. The misplaced students have since returned to Wayne.

The hot and cold of the polar vortex certainly will be an event that Mercyhurst will not soon forget.