Updated, 1:15 a.m.
Morningside Heights prepared for the onset of 40 mph winds on Sunday, as Hurricane Sandy forced Columbia to cancel classes Monday and New York City to shut down its transit system.
Other critical University services will be in limited operation. Dining services will remain open on Monday with hours subject to change, while Health Services will have abbreviated staffing. The University’s libraries closed on Sunday by 6 p.m., though 24-hour reading rooms in Butler remained open.
“We urge members of the Columbia community to stay informed about conditions, exercise caution if travel is necessary, and to remain indoors if possible in light of predicted high winds and heavy rains,” read a statement from Public Safety announcing the canceling of classes.
The emergency management operation team has been meeting periodically since Saturday, Dean of Student Affairs Kevin Shollenberger said on Sunday evening. “We’ve been tracking the storm, certainly, watching the action throughout the city,” he said. “All the predictions of the storm have made us very cautious.”
Starting yesterday, Facilities began monitoring the roofs of campus buildings, looking for loose materials. Some buildings have backup generators for emergency lights, Shollenberger said, though he was not sure of how many.
“It’s a little too early to tell” whether classes could be canceled on Tuesday, Shollenberger said. He estimated that his office would have a better idea by Monday afternoon.
In the event of a power outage, Shollenberger said that his office will be “meeting and communicating with the RAs and Res Life staff.” He added, “Have some patience with that, because we’ll have to put out announcements manually.”
Business on Broadway
Storm preparations wreaked havoc on local businesses, with lines outside of Westside Market on Broadway and 110th Street stretching around the block. Across the street, in D’Agostino, lines snaked through the aisles to the back of the store.
While many businesses closed at 5 p.m., 24-hour stores Westside Market, Duane Reade, and Morton Williams planned to stay open.
Ian Joskowitz, manager of Westside Market, said, “We’re controlling the amount of people we allow in the store. ... We’ve stocked up on everything we knew we’d need. We spent a week preparing.”
He added, “The only way we’ll close if is if we have no employees.”
Diego Zoghbi, CC ’14, said the full impact of the story “really hit when I went to Westside and everyone’s there. There’s a line to get in, there’s no bread, and everyone’s stocking up on water and people are taking it really seriously.”
On Sunday afternoon, University Housewares manager Bob Fendell unloaded a Jeep full of boxes of extra flashlights, batteries, and candles outside the store. Fendell’s mother, who lives on Coney Island, was forced to evacuate, he said.
“It’s been busy, very busy,” Fendell said. “Whenever’s there’s an evacuation, you have to take it seriously.”
Students had a taste of hurricane-like lockdowns in August 2011 when Tropical Storm Irene canceled Convocation and forced the city to shut down its transit system for the first time in history. But Sandy is gearing up to be an even more serious storm.
Adam Sobel, who chairs Columbia’s committee on atmospheric science, said that while there have been storms that have mirrored Sandy’s composition of a tropical cyclone and winter storm, Sandy differs because she will make landfall.
“The most unusual thing about it is that it’s coming back to hit us,” he said. “They usually get blown out to sea and that was the case with the perfect storm of 1991—except this one is actually more powerful.”
The University’s decision to cancel all classes and events on Monday was the first such closure in two and a half years. Union Theological Seminary, Jewish Theological Seminary, and Manhattan School of Music also announced that they would be closed Monday.
(Even prospective students benefited from Columbia’s closure. The Office of Undergraduate Admissions pushed back the early decision deadline for Columbia College and the School of Engineering and Applied Science from Nov. 1 to Nov. 5. “We hope this helps to relieve some of the stress and anxiety you might be feeling as the storm approaches your region,” a notice on the office’s website read.)
With only a week until Columbia’s first planned academic holiday of the fall semester, Alexandra Orth, SEAS ’15, called it “fall break number one.”
Chigozie Akah, CC ’16, said she agreed. “I’m happy that classes are canceled so I can have some extra time. But I’m still a little annoyed now, because my midterm got pushed all the way to next week,” she said.
Administrators urged students to take precautions by stocking up on supplies and charging electronics.
“I have my batteries, my flashlight, and my charged iPad ready,” Akah said.
“I got a test postponed, so that’s solid,” Charles Pan, SEAS ’16, said. To prepare for the storm, he stocked up on water and dry cereal.
Low-lying zones across the five boroughs were ordered to evacuate on Sunday afternoon. The city’s public schools were closed on Monday and the Coast Guard closed New York’s harbor.
The MTA shutdown—a rare and costly decision—is prudent, said Gene Russianoff, spokesperson for the Straphangers Campaign, a transit advocacy group.
“The first time around was more of a shock to the system,” Russianoff said. “It’s not ideal for a lot of people who have jobs they can’t get to, but I think it’s a very reasonable action.”
Subways shut down Sunday at 7 p.m. and buses at 9 p.m., although the subway closure was expected to take seven hours, while the bus system was expected to take six. The duration of the suspension is unknown, according to a statement from the MTA.
“Service will be restored only when it is safe to do so, after careful inspections of all equipment and tracks,” the statement read. “Even with minimal damage this is expected to be a lengthy process.”
Klaus Jacob, a researcher at the Earth Institute who advises the city on disaster management, said that the subway system would be affected most if sea levels rose high enough.
“This is not a storm where sandbagging will be an effective protection,” he said.
Jacob explained that subway flooding would be consequential because the water would need to be pumped out of the system and could take weeks to remove.
“MTA only has three mobile pumps—you have to push out the water and it will take time to bring in the pumps from outside,” he said.
While flooding in Morningside Heights would probably be “marginal,” Jacob said, the largest consequences would probably occur in “very low-lying areas, including the Financial District, and subway system in those areas” due to flooding.
The deciding factor for the MTA, however, is not flooding, but sustained wind speeds of more than 39 mph. Winds in the next few days are predicted to be 40 or 50 mph.
“Eighteen out of the 20 subway lines go outside at some point,” usually with elevated segments, Russianoff said. High winds on elevated trains—like the viaduct the 1 train traverses between the 116th and 137th street stations—could be a “recipe for a bad thing happening,” he said.
The shutdown is likely to cost the MTA, which is in dire financial straits. During Irene, the agency sustained losses of $65 million in lost fares and repairs, for which it has since submitted insurance claims. Because Sandy is expected to be a substantially bigger storm, Russianoff predicted that the losses from Irene are “not as much as they’re going to lose this time.”
Closing such a fundamental system as transit will always evoke passengers’ ire, he said. “A lot of people will be unhappy about this, but the MTA doesn’t have a choice.”
“I think people are grossly overexaggerating how bad this is going to be,” said Joseph Ramos, GS ’14, who lived in Albany during Irene. “We’re not living in ramshackle huts, we’re in New York City.”
“I think this is ridiculous,” said Carmen Larino, who was waiting on Broadway for one of the last buses before the shutdown. “I am 63 years old. Do you know how many hurricanes I’ve walked through? And life goes on, OK?”
She added, “It’s good to be prepared and alert, but to create such chaos is awful.”
Other straphangers said they understood the decision.
“I think this whole situation is quite inconvenient, but a big storm is coming and for the people’s safety they should close stuff,” said Andy Kang, who was waiting for one of the last 1 trains at the 116th Street station shortly before 7 p.m.
Lillian Chen, Sophie Gamez, Avantika Kumar, Thea Raymond-Sidel, and Cecilia Reyes contributed reporting.