Cooper’s Hurricane Sandy Response Team

Sean Cusack forward by Yara Elborolosy (CE ‘14)

Hurricane Sandy affected people in seven different countries and in twenty-four states across the U.S.A, killing two hundred and fifty three people and costing at least 65.6 billion dollars, 63 billion being in the U.S. alone. 41 Cooper Square lost power initially and tried to use a back-up generator to compensate but the back-up generator failed by the next morning. Inspirational stories of people helping out those devastated by the storms could be found in every newspaper and now, the Pioneer will thank Cooper’s own personal heroes. This article was kindly provided to us by alumnus and adjunct professor Sean Cusack.

In the dark of the power outage, with no sign of the early morning light outside, figures are dragging industrial equipment up the stairs. It’s the Thursday after Superstorm Sandy, and the 1-Megawatt diesel backup generator had failed. Jeff Hakner (EE ‘91), and Jody Grapes, Director of Facilities, are carrying a smaller spare gasoline-powered generator up eight flights of stairs to the Alumni Terrace and within reach of the computers that need electricity. They and a small group of staff and engineers arrived before the police-enforced 6 am curfew to check critical systems, repair any damage that might have occurred, and prepare the campus for the next few days.

A week earlier, with forewarning about the storm, the systems seemed to work according to plan. Cooper was ready with a day’s diesel in its generator, in case of temporary blackout. The fuel could be stretched if additional facilities were shut down. But sometimes, fate intervenes.

The generator kept up with demand for eight hours during the blackout, then suffered a failure due to low oil pressure and went dark. The computer systems were abruptly shut off in the middle of operation, and with the computers down, so went and email.

Administration reacted and called in tech specialists to repair the generator, but soon discovered the problem went beyond the low oil pressure. The local team didn’t have the parts necessary to discern or repair the problem. A new plan was hatched on Wednesday night by President Bharucha, TC Westcott, Jody Grapes, and Bob Hopkins to bring up critical systems and to restore internet and email service and the website if possible.

Back on the 8th floor on Thursday, the gasoline-powered generator that is usually only utilized for small outdoor lighting and power tools is only 3500W, barely enough to run a few of the servers behind the computer center. Jody, his team, and Jeff get it running outside on the Terrace – the generator cannot run indoors due to the risk of carbon monoxide.

Meanwhile, on the 10th floor, engineers continue to work on the diesel generator but even the service tech can’t get it up and running; the main repair team from Detroit Diesel will have to come in. They won’t arrive in time during this blackout.

Jeff splices custom power extension cords and runs wires from the Terrace into the server room behind the Computer Center. Each server takes almost 1000W, so there’s not much room for error keeping basic services alive. After removing the redundant backup power systems and pulling line cards in the servers to reduce the amperage draw, email and internet come up.

Jeff is able to fix the hard power-off software issues. For now everything is running on the gasoline, but there is not enough fuel to last for very long. Unfortunately, the natural-gas powered Co-Gen plants in both buildings – though they work properly – can only share load on existing ConEd power lines, and with the ConEd lines dark, the Co-Gen Plants cannot provide power. With some modification they could be independent but that’s something to plan for another time.

As the gasoline starts to run out, the team looks for any nearby source. But just like everyone else in Manhattan, they find it impossible to access any. This time, knowing that another outage is coming, Jeff properly shuts down all the systems so they will be easy to reboot when the power is up. Cooper goes dark gently. Come Friday morning, there is still no gasoline to be found and Jeff Hakner is driving through Connecticut searching for some when he gets the call that ConEd will soon be bringing the power up. When the lights all turn on again in the East Village, Jeff is able to bring the Cooper Union systems back up remotely from his home, thanks to shutting them down correctly the evening before.

On Saturday morning and with driving restrictions still heavily enforced, Brian Cusack (ME ‘01), takes a 3-hour bus ride from central New Jersey into the Port Authority and, with the subways still shut down below 34th Street, catches a cab down to Cooper. He spends the morning plugging the line cards back in and replacing the redundant power lines. After removing the low-power usage special settings put in place two days earlier, he brings all the other servers back up to normal. The web is up! Datatel also seems to have suffered no serious damage, though it will be until the next week before that is officially running, thanks to more effort by John Kibbe.

Thanks to the hard work and long hours of Facilities, Security, and the Computer Center staff, and despite an unforeseen generator failure, Cooper had power while many did not and was running full-steam ahead by the beginning of the week immediately following Hurricane Sandy.

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