From Sunday morning, Jan. 5, until Wednesday night, Jan. 8, Culver Academies parents, students, faculty, and staff were faced with battling the little known “Polar Vortex” as they tried to reach campus after the holiday break.
With the Polar Vortex bringing a combination of an unusually large accumulation of snow, followed by double-digit sub-zero temperatures, plans were already taking shape Sunday to cancel the first day of classes on Monday. The start of classes was delayed for a total of three days, giving students and families time to dig out and travel safely.
But the Vortex had already turned into a perfect storm for Student Life transportation coordinator Stephanie Wright. She had buses on the way to Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway airports and Indianapolis International Airport. Students were already in the air heading back to campus.
Wright arrived at 9 a.m. Sunday. She would not return home until 6 p.m. Monday. She then came back early and left late on Tuesday and Wednesday. During that time she read and responded to over 1,500 emails and took 200 phone calls as she traded information with parents, chaperones, students, the Royal Excursion bus company, and hotels.
Students were already arriving in Chicago, with three buses waiting to pick them up. The bus coming from Indianapolis International, with International Student Coordinator Elizabeth Adams as the chaperone, would take over six hours to reach campus.
While some students were arriving, others had their flights delayed or canceled. When the buses finally left their respective Chicago locations, they didn’t get far before they were ordered off the road by Royal Excursion after Indiana declared a snow emergency and all non-emergency vehicles faced a $500 fine. The Indiana Toll Road (80/90) and Interstates 65 and 94 in the northwestern part of the state had been closed due to high winds and drifting snow.
Two chaperones, music instructor John Gouwens and library assistant Becky Strati, and their students had to stay at a hotel two miles away from O’Hare. Another, admissions officer Savanah Kranich ’05, pulled off in Merrillville, Ind., with her students. And the third, Catholic youth minister Debbie Foersch, pulled off the Toll Road in Chesterton, Ind. with her students. She was assisted by instructors Igor Stefanic and Sandy Reavill, who had also flown back into Chicago. A total of 130 students and their chaperones spent the next two days riding out the storm.
Wright said it was the first time something of this magnitude happened in her 13 years handling Culver transportation issues (six with Student Life). “It was a mess,” she said. “I have never experienced anything like that.”
The travel problems were made worse since most restaurants and fast food places were closed. It turned out that delivery pizza was the primary fuel. The frigid temperatures caused two of the busses’ fuel lines to freeze, and Royal Excursion had to send others on Tuesday to bring the students back to Culver when the roads were finally opened.
When members of the prep hockey team finally landed at Midway Monday evening, Wright asked coach Al Clark to pick up a student who was also arriving late. Gouwens, Kranich, and Foersch all made return trips to O’Hare and Midway to pick up students as their flights arrived. Adams made two additional trips to Indianapolis. And facilities sent drivers to both Chicago and Indianapolis to gather up other late-arriving students, Wright said.
“So many people did so many great things,” Wright added. “Everybody helped out. The chaperones took charge and the kids were absolutely wonderful. That made it much easier.”
By Wednesday, the majority of the students were back on campus, but Wright said there were still some students arriving through the rest of the week. Along with her emails and phone calls, Wright said over the three days Safety and Security handled another 200 phone calls and the parents Facebook page and group emails kept everyone updated on a regular basis.