Scenes from a Blackout

Submitted on Tuesday, 11/8/2011, at 1:55 PM

By Mark Idleman '15

Early in the afternoon on Saturday, the sky was a blank gray and the air was crisp. Flakes began to fall as I walked to the men’s soccer game, and by the time I got there, a few inches were already on the ground. The game was a mess; players were slipping and sliding everywhere, and the ball would only roll for a few feet before it picked up snow and became a snowball. By the time soccer was over, around three inches had fallen, and the large, wet flakes were still hitting my face as I walked back to my dorm. Later that night, friends and I walked out to the freshman quad to have a snowball fight. The snow was falling heavily, and the quad was silent. You could hear the creak of trees overhead as they bent under the weight of the snow. It was clear that our location wasn’t very safe.  We moved to a more open patch of the quad, away from trees, and watched as branches snapped and crashed to the ground.  It was chaotic, with large limbs breaking violently and falling, leaving clouds of snow in their wake.  We opted to return to North and went to sleep without any power.


When I woke up, the power was still out. Along the way to Val, I realized that the storm had wreaked havoc; branches were sprinkled all over the snow and paths were blocked by huge limbs. When I arrived at Val, the front hall was jammed with students who had brought power strips and were charging their electronics.  People were sprawled out anywhere and everywhere. Students were sitting against the walls in hallways, using the outlets in the food service area and crowding around tables throughout the dining hall. I also noticed a large number of people who had come from town seeking food, electricity and heat.  It was obvious that Val would be serving as a central refuge for both the college and the town of Amherst, and there was a strong sense of community as everyone huddled up and waited to see what would happen next. The power was restored later that evening to many buildings (including my dorm), but the campus was clearly still recovering and no one was surprised when classes were canceled for Monday.

On Monday morning, students and townspeople met on the freshman quad to organize a cleanup effort around campus. The quad looked like a warzone, but as the swarm of volunteers and workers cleared away debris, it began to look better. Several maintenance workers, equipped with chainsaws, cut the larger branches into sections that students could pick up and carry to the edges of the quad. After most of the limbs had been cleared, the group split up around campus, helping to clean up at the gym and other locations. Everyone banded together. Students were eager to bring the campus back to its previous condition. Cooperation was key: groups would get together to clear the larger pieces, carrying and dumping them as a team. The cleanup lasted most of the day, with volunteers working until the grounds were sufficiently cleared of debris.


By Adam Gerchick '13

The Halloween party was well underway when the fire alarm went off around 11:30 p.m. Saturday night. The immediate reaction among the dozens of revelers in a Davis Dormitory suite was one of exasperated disbelief: things were just getting good, and now this? After staring at one another, the costumed partygoers slowly pushed toward the exits, tromping down two flights of stairs in their costumes and emerging into the frigid, snowy night.  The tuxedoed gangster looked rather comfortable in the weather; the sleeveless lumberjack, not so much. 

I followed Tarzan and the pimp to Pond Dormitory in search of another party. Refugees from the Davis festivities soon crowded Pond, spilling out from the entrance. I worked my way into a sort of human stream slowing pressing upstairs along the right stairway banister. I made it into the common room of a friend’s suite, glad to talk with friends and listen to music while the snow fell heavily outside.

This arrangement proved fleeting: before midnight, the power died, pitching Pond into darkness. From the windows, I watched an exodus of costumed students crowd the outside pathways and head elsewhere for the second time that hour.

The early snowstorm was catching the trees still with their leaves, providing additional surface area on which the snow could weigh down limbs. Branches seemed to be coming down in rapid succession, pulling down power lines and overloading transformers all across the college. The transformers were exploding, flashing fluorescent blue into the night and allowing me to make out students running through the snow. 

Looking out the window with me, a friend gestured toward the grass between the Pond and Stone dormitories. I looked, and together we watched a lone figure in a penguin suit walking through the bombardment of branches and blue explosions like Halloween’s answer to Francis Scott Key.



I arrived in Valentine Hall on Sunday morning to find it filled with like-minded snowstorm refugees. Well over 100 students had crowded the dining tables with backpacks, cell phones and laptops, searching for electricity and Internet access in what had suddenly become a technologically disconnected campus. Earlier that morning, Amherst’s facilities staff had parked a large generator outside of the building, turning it into an oasis of heat, power and web connectivity. 

Seemingly every power outlet had been taken. Phone and laptop chargers occupied many. Several students, knowing outlet access would be in short supply, had brought their power strips, those foot-long accessories with multiple outlets.

Few students had enough gadgets to occupy the entireties of their power strips, and so an altruistic economy  developed, with students offering to share their unused outlets with friends and strangers who happened to be sitting nearby.

As I was eating breakfast, a town resident walked by my table, searching in vain for an available outlet along the wall.  A student seated next to me had her own power strip and asked the resident if he would like to share it. The man almost stared in surprise and thanked her as though she had offered some extraordinary gift.  

By Emily Gold Boutilier

The morning after the power went out, my husband, daughter and I went in search of a hot breakfast. Downtown Amherst had no open restaurants, so we turned onto Route 9, where we found the 24-hour diner dark. Back in the car, we downgraded our requirements: a hot meal no longer necessary, we decided that hot coffee would do just fine. Alas, there was no coffee on Route 9 in Hadley. We pushed on to downtown Northampton, where everything was closed.


As we turned around the car, I knew two things: First, for the sake of all involved, my husband needed caffeine. (There's a remote chance he was thinking the same thing about me, but that's only because he doesn't realize that I could stop any time.) Second, I knew there was an excellent chance that Valentine was open.

Returning to Amherst, we practically cheered as we saw lights on in Val. Inside the college's dining hall, we found bagels, cereal (my 7-year-old concocted a mix of various frosted grains), scrambled eggs, sausage and roasted root vegetables. The coffee was not only hot but also good, and I am hard to please when it comes to coffee.

We found a round table and were soon joined by three friendly students. We mentioned that since no one was there to scan my staff ID or take my money, I'd call during the week to own up to the three meals. Later, I learned there was no need to call: Val was open to the public, for free, in the days after the storm, when so many in the area were without heat and electricity. In my family and in many others, the gesture did not go unnoticed or unappreciated.

Photos by Rob Mattson