The Townsend Memorial Library staff arrived around 7 a.m. as usual Wednesday morning, but nothing about their arrival was normal.
The building was in total darkness, and the fire alarm was screeching with bright white lights strobing across the shelves of books and computer stations – hardly the quiet environment librarians are used to.
Darkness and confusion was common throughout Texas Wednesday morning as The Electric Reliability Council of Texas decided to use rolling blackouts to curb the high use of energy caused by the bitter cold weather.
About 8 percent of the power generated in Texas was shut down overnight by the cold, and the Texas grid operator attempted to prevent a more serious energy emergency by cutting the juice all over Texas for short intervals of time.
Whatever method the council took to choose when and where the power would be cut was not made known to the public.
“We asked our service provider to give us a blackout schedule, and they couldn’t provide us one,” said Director of Information Technology Shawn Kung. “We advised everyone to not turn on their computers. When the computer is on, the hard disk is running. If you lose power, you could get some pretty serious damage to your hard drive.”
Only minor damages were caused by the power failures, but IT and police would have preferred to be notified when the power was out to address the situation.
“The utilities commission is going to have to find a way to notify people about these blackouts,” Police Chief Gary Sargent said. “They can send me an e-mail that my bill has been paid or is due. They should be able to send me an e-mail that my power is getting shut off.”
The librarians, armed with flashlights, did their best to keep the library running and the students able to study and work until the university was officially closed at 11 a.m. Wednesday
“This building uses a lot of electricity,” said Director of Learning Resources Denise Karimkhani. “We’ve had power outages before, but not for that reason – usually it was due to storms. That’s why we bought flashlights because this building is pitch black dark.”
The weather effectively shut down the campus, with power outages on Wednesday and Thursday and two inches of snow on Friday. Only 10 a.m. classes met Wednesday, and school was delayed until 9:30 a.m. Thursday. Friday’s precipitation meant lots of glistening snow on top of school buildings, but no one inside them.
For many students, the cold white layer was not just an excuse for a day off, but a whole new experience.
“I love when we have snow at UMHB because everyone plays in it together regardless of if you have ever seen them before,” senior nursing major Andrew Kester said.
He could be spotted at a midnight intramural field snow ball fight shortly after the snow started falling.
“We all turn into little kids for a day.”
Sophomore music education major Brooke Beasely celebrated her 20th birthday in Friday’s snow.
“Thank you to UMHB for the best birthday present – no classes.”
Class cancellations were sent out to students via e-mail, voicemail, texts and the university websites to try and avoid the problem of dark and powerless classrooms and traffic funneling into the school without the guide of traffic lights.
Unfortunately, the blackouts came at unpredictable intervals, and even the campus police’s notification system wasn’t without kinks Wednesday morning. Many students were unaware of the delay.
“We were extremely disappointed with the way it worked,” Sargent said. “We had a high failure rate and a delayed response time. The first message was supposed to be sent out at 6:30 a.m. and wasn’t sent out until 7:40. We had about a 25 percent failure rate, which for an emergency system is unacceptable.”
Campus police are researching solutions and even other vendors to solve the problems with the notifications.
Sargent also stressed that students could check the university websites and their e-mail before calling the police about closures.
“We really want to encourage folks that if they are looking for university closures and openings, they should look at the websites, and we should be the final call,” he said. “That way we can be sure our communication lines can be open for emergency situations.”
What kept the police the busiest Wednesday were the volume of calls about cancellations and delays.
“We were inundated with calls,” he said. “An actual emergency could occur, and we wouldn’t know about it because we are dealing with so many questions about delays and closures.”