What Goes Around Comes Around: H1N1 and
Extended Outage Planning Viewed Through
the Lens of the Blizzard of ’78
A Week of Snow Days
“Just as it was about to begin, the spring term was abruptly aborted Tuesday by the area’s worst blizzard in almost a century…Thus students missed the first week of classes whether they liked it or not.” Thus began an article in the February 10, 1978 edition of The Tech [Vol. 98, No. 2, p.1], one of a series that chronicled the challenges of continuity of operations across the Institute and an unwavering spirit of volunteerism during times of need, undaunted by the Blizzard of ’78. A second article in that same issue spotlighted the volunteer efforts of 60 Baker House residents who aided the National Guard in reaching snowbound residents of various Cambridge neighborhoods [Vol. 98, No. 2, p. 5].
To read these and the succeeding articles – over 30 years after their initial publication – is to see the printed words as a reflecting pool of the challenges currently facing the Institute in light of heightened concerns over the predicted H1N1 flu resurgence in the coming months, the general financial pressures reaching all corners of the Institute, and the moving target of when the next catastrophic natural disaster will strike.
Yet, among these angst-ridden ripples, appear glints of the ingenuity and goodwill that emerge when the MIT Community uses its considerable human assets to fulfill a need, whether it is continuity of our own operations or providing assistance to the greater community.
In the event of a major emergency the question is not whether MIT will find a way to prevail, for this Institute was founded on the concept of using Mind and Hand to prevail over the challenges impeding mankind’s betterment.
This driving passion also explains why the Institute never truly sleeps, never completely closes, and why any Institute emergency preparedness campaign must empower departments not only to care for themselves, but potentially to care for others if need arises.
The Institute as Biological Organism
Our Institute is an ecosystem of research, educational, and residential life functions facilitated by a web of infrastructure, information, and administrative services. As much as MIT may feel like a small city unto itself, the Institute’s ties to the macrocosm of global research collaborations, external funding entities, recruiters, and the local Cambridge and Boston governments serves as a reminder that the effects of suspending campus activities do not remain neatly enclosed within our campus borders. Consider how these external responses to a public health emergency or natural disaster might affect your group(s):
- The Massachusetts and/or Cambridge Department of Public Health may command the use of MIT and Harvard facilities to set up an Emergency Dispensing Site (EDS) or Influenza Specialty Care Unit (ISCU) if area hospitals and clinics reach carrying capacity;
- Faculty, staff, or students may be called upon – or may volunteer – to lend their expertise;
- MIT community members returning from abroad may encounter difficulties resuming on-campus activities if federal or state authorities institute travel bans;
- Day care, school, and community program closures may force staff and students to adopt alternative measures to care for family members; or
- One or more buildings might experience a catastrophic failure as a secondary result of a natural disaster, or delivery of essential services may be jeopardized by an ongoing public health emergency that critically strains campus staffing levels. One’s ability to circulate about campus does not guarantee that all of the customary services will be available as usual.
Even if the Institute is not broadly impacted, a local event such as a burst pipe in a Core Facility has the potential to jeopardize not only the work of Institute researchers, but any of hundreds of external collaborators who send materials to these Core Facilities or otherwise use their services.
A critical thinker might question the likelihood or duration of any of these community-wide impacts. In January 1978, then-Governor Michael Dukakis declared a state of emergency and travel ban that spanned several days from the initial storm on January 20. From this challenge rose positive accounts of the dedicated Facilities workers who, along with student volunteers, maintained delivery of essential services and snow removal, and how Dining Services and students enabled the MacGregor House Dining Hall to operate without disruption. From this challenge too rose physical losses as the J.B. Carr Indoor Tennis Facility, or the “Tennis Bubble,” experienced a catastrophic roof collapse at a cost exceeding $60,000 – in 1978 dollars – and a building outage that lasted several months [The Tech, Vol. 97, No. 63, p. 1].
A critical thinker may also question the anecdotes presented here from The Tech, MIT’s student-run newspaper. While it may not represent all of the myriad student views across MIT, as a publication in press since 1881 The Tech has been chronicler, from a student account, of the events that have shaped the Institute’s history. On a day-to-day basis, how many of us stop to consider that students comprise at least 50% of the campus population? To view the Institute as a biological organism is to see the students as its lifeblood. They are the current and future graduate students, faculty members, employees, donors, entrepreneurs, collaborators, and joint patent-holders with MIT. The faculty at MIT attracts the students, the potential for boundless learning and innovation keeps students here, and the students’ desire to give back to the Institute results in a remarkable web of intellectual recycling and reinvention. They may not be conscious of it, but our students are an integral and permanent part of the MIT ecosystem. Our policies and plans – including those for continuity of operations – affect them as much as us in concrete and abstract terms.
The Janus Irony
Roman mythology depicts Janus, the ruler of time and transitions, as having two heads facing in opposite directions. Janus governed physical and temporal passages, and is the namesake of January, that transition from the old year to the new. How ironic that MIT’s own transition between semesters – January IAP – was marked by the worst snowstorm in nearly a century, and delayed the start of the spring ’78 semester. When, in this issue [page 4], Professor Thomas Kochan writes of the cooperation necessary to address class suspension and make-up policies in light of a major Institute emergency, his statement evokes the February 14, 1978 front-page headline of The Tech: “Faculty May Cancel 4-day Breaks” [The Tech, Vol. 98, No. 3, p. 1]. That article reported on the four spring term days lost to the Blizzard. Then-Chancellor Paul Gray ’54 was to meet with Chair of the MIT Faculty Robert Hulsizer, Dean for Student Affairs Carola Eisenberg and Provost Walter Eisenblith on February 15, 1978 to discuss a menu of options that included using the Washington’s Birthday and Patriot’s Day holidays; Saturdays; Spring Break; or extending the term. How uncanny that the same continuity of operations questions that arise now in the context of H1N1 resurgence surfaced then. The students wrote about it.
Over 30 years later, the specter of recovering lost teaching and research time remains a critical concern.
Modern technology may aid MIT’s plan to prevail, but technology does not obviate the need for the human factor of clear and responsive policy-making. How will the policies developed in the coming months affect the Institute in three decades? The emergency preparedness and resilience planning measures taken at the department level may feel local or temporary, but they have ripple effects spanning geography and time, for which words and numbers fail.
Recent Faculty Newsletter articles featured two MIT building outages as focal points for continuity of operations questions for academic, research and administrative departments to consider. When sizing up the true impact on MIT of the Blizzard of ’78, the February 14, 1978 article concluded: “Gray commented that the time lost to research efforts considerably outweighs the out-of-pocket expenses associated with physical plant.” Take a look around your office, laboratory, or work area. If you were to lose your materials today, what is the one thing that you would find most irreplaceable and that places your research and/or education program most at risk? The past informs us that such a scenario exists. As we enter the gates of a new academic year and prepare to meet its challenges, perhaps a fitting resolution might be to reflect on what is most precious to our contributions to MIT as individuals and groups, seek ways to build resilience in those efforts, and prevail in a way that is sustainable for the MIT organism and its interconnected parts.