After Fiona: How Dal crews seized the moment to keep campus essentials powered

- September 29, 2022

Scenes of damage wrought by post-tropical storm Fiona on Dal's Studley Campus and the Agricultural Campus in Truro. (Provided photos)
Scenes of damage wrought by post-tropical storm Fiona on Dal's Studley Campus and the Agricultural Campus in Truro. (Provided photos)

As the violent winds and whipping rain from post-tropical storm Fiona finally died down in Halifax last Saturday, a storm of a different kind was brewing on Dal campus.

It was a storm of activity within Dal’s Facilities Management team as they worked to ensure the emergency generators keeping critical facilities and buildings powered made it through what would prove to be one of the longest outages the university has faced in years.

“We found ourselves assisting with getting fuel to critical generators,” says Michael Wilkinson, environmental services manager at Dal.

As with Hurricane Dorian three years earlier, the facilities team had spent the days leading up to Fiona preparing for the worst — including filling a 300-litre fuel tank secured to the back of one of the university’s trucks.

In the hours that followed the onset of the outage, Wilkinson says facilities personnel filled the tank repeatedly to help keep the generators running until Dal's fuel supplier — grappling with incredible demands from customers — was able to make it to campus. Security Services also played a pivotal role in assisting with keeping the generators fuelled up, with one team member even helping expedite a fuel delivery.

Residences, dining halls, research labs and other university facilities could have been severely impacted if they’d been stuck for an extended period without power, explains Darrell Boutilier, director of operations with Facilities Management.

For instance, he says the Fieldhouse at Dalplex relies on power to keep its roof afloat. If the energy source had dried up there, the roof could have collapsed, leaving the hardwood basketball courts and other facilities inside exposed to the elements.

Related reading: Lessons from Fiona — Global collaboration is key to preparing for future hurricanes

Picking up the pieces

While Dal’s facilities in Halifax emerged intact thanks to the after-hours efforts of work crews, including dispatchers assisting from afar, Fiona’s explosive power left the university’s grounds — like much of Atlantic Canada — littered with debris.

Grounds crews began picking up the pieces around noon on Saturday, working with an outside contractor in the days following to remove most of the brush and leaves. 

Wilkinson says fewer trees were lost in Halifax in this storm compared to Hurricane Dorian in 2019, although he estimates the impacts are roughly similar. He says part of the preparation for any big storm happens well before it hits.

“We keep our trees as healthy as possible by continual monitoring them for damage or diseased limbs, so they are usually less susceptible to high winds,” he says.

Those tree limbs that were ripped from trunks have since been sliced into smaller pieces and stacked on campus. “We encourage those who want the wood for firewood to help themselves,” says Wilkinson.

On the Agricultural Campus in Truro, Fiona’s fierce winds tore shingles from roofs, knocked down fences, and blew out some skylights. Yet, it was the campus grounds there that suffered the brunt of the impact with destroyed flower beds and downed trees that blocked major roads. Cleanup took a little longer than in Halifax, with the campus closed for an extra day there.

"Number one is that our students, staff and animals were safe,” says Jason Penney, Dal’s manager of facilities for the campus, noting that students enjoyed the warmth and comfort of food and device charging at the dining hall and study space in another building.

Team power

Additional hard work and preparation on all campuses ahead of Fiona — such as clearing storm drains and catch basins, moving waste bins inside, and securing dumpsters — ensured major physical impacts from the storm were limited.

As did the planning that went into organizing staffing during the height of the storm and after. 

"The storm threw several challenges at our respective teams, but they showed laser focus in getting done what needed to be done and won the day for our students and others in the Dal community," says Mike Burns, director of Security Services at Dal. "I encourage everyone to take time to reflect on what they achieved. It was truly special.”


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