When snow fell overnight in San Antonio, Trinity students, staff, and faculty all awoke to a powdery winter wonderland. Students spent the morning sledding through the walking trails on campus, oblivious to what the next few days had in store.
What was supposed to be a small amount of snow quickly became an intense winter storm that none of South Texas was truly prepared to handle. Many homes were without heat or water—or both—and the University’s campus effectively shut down.
Yet, many of Trinity’s departments, such as Facilities Services and Dining Services, refused to leave Tigers on campus in the cold. Using the same creative problem solving Trinity students use in the classroom, University staff found innovative ways to conquer the many challenges posed by the storm, all to keep students warm, comfortable, and fed.
Who You Gonna Call?
“The care of our students is a strong concern. We don’t have the ability to shut off the lights and tell everybody to go home,” says Ivan Pendergast, Trinity’s emergency manager. “We have students on campus we need to make sure are fed and still have the basic essentials.”
So, while students sledded down hills on cookie sheets and basked in the powdery snow, Pendergast and Trinity’s Crisis Management Team (CMT) were planning steps to keep the campus operational. When unexpected crises arise that affect Trinity’s campus, the CMT works together to solve whatever issue—whether it be a pandemic or an apocalyptic winter storm—is threatening the University.
Pendergast acts as the central organizer for the representatives from various departments who make up the CMT, bringing them together and facilitating all sides of a problem “so the heroes can accomplish what they need to accomplish,” he humbly says. And in this situation, Pendergast explains, the storm was worse than early reports from the National Weather Service indicated. Pipes were freezing, Texas’ power grids were failing, water pressure was dropping, and roads were icing over, setting up a disaster situation.
We don’t have the ability to shut off the lights and tell everybody to go home. We have students on campus we need to make sure are fed and still have the basic essentials.
So the CMT met every day during the winter storm to creatively brainstorm ideas and find ways to implement solutions to the problems facing campus. “Our goal was to not have the students feel any hiccup and not lose any resources,” Pendergast says.
“We were plagued with the same thing everyone else was. Everybody else in the city was trying to ... get water. In order to get water, you had to drive to the coast and pump it out of the ocean,” Pendergast says, laughing.
Just Keep Swimming
Or if you’re Jim Baker, you could pump the water out of a swimming pool.
“A winter storm in South Texas rarely occurs to this magnitude,” says Baker, director of Facilities Services. “The sheer bottom end of the temperature caught us by surprise. We knew it was coming, but there was nothing we could do to prepare for it.”
Facilities Services was prepared to de-ice sidewalks and help with freezing pipes, but they were not expecting all of campus to lose water pressure. “Losing the water was a game-changer for us,” Baker recalls.
Like much of San Antonio, all of Trinity’s campus lost water pressure extremely quickly, within the span of 15 minutes. For many people, a loss of water pressure means a loss of running faucets and flushing toilets. But for Trinity, it almost meant the loss of heat in the residence halls, too.
The buildings on campus are heated by a boiler system where hot water is funneled through pipes to heat each space in a closed loop. The system requires the input of 100 gallons of water per hour to maintain. “Without the 100 gallons of water added to the system, the system basically stops flowing and there is no hot water,” Baker says.
It was a pretty amazing set of consequences and things that had to happen to get things running, and they stayed running.
So when campus lost water pressure, Baker and the rest of the team at Facilities Services scrambled to find a solution to heat the buildings. First, they diverted water from administrative buildings on upper campus, which were closed due to the storm, to conserve water. However, that was not going to be enough.
Then, a light bulb switched on—Trinity had plenty of water available for them to use. It just happened to be sitting in the outdoor pool.
Once the facilities team had this idea in mind, it was just a matter of finding a way to pump the water from the outdoor pool into the boiler loop. They considered using hoses and pumps before realizing the locker rooms at the outdoor pool provided access to the pipes they needed.
“We did a little bit of backcountry engineering, and we figured out how to pump water from the outdoor loop right there within the building,” Baker says. “With a little bit of welding and some electrical work, we got the pump to operate. It was a pretty amazing set of consequences and things that had to happen to get things running. And they stayed running.”
To keep things running in Mabee Hall, Dining Services prepared for anticipated icy conditions by placing larger food orders ahead of time with their vendors in case delivery trucks couldn’t reach them.
But a surplus of food would be useless if there weren’t people around to cook it—and the snowy weather meant roads would ice and lead to dangerous driving conditions overnight. So, to keep students living on campus fed with hot meals, Dining Services asked for volunteers to spend the night at Trinity. It’s a move the department has made in the past for hurricanes, and even during a similar snowstorm in 1985.
A lot of us who volunteered have our own families... and we wanted to make sure (Trinity students) were taken care of in the same way.
“When it came time to ask for volunteers, it was heartwarming and a little shocking to see how many people put their hands up right away to be a part of the team and help out,” says Charles Robles, Trinity’s Dining Services director.
“A lot of us who volunteered have our own families, and some have young ones who have already left the home. We wanted to make sure [Trinity students] were taken care of in the same way,” he says. “We made sure our families were safe, but we wanted to make sure students didn’t feel much of what was going on outside the campus.”
Of the couple dozen staffers who volunteered, many slept in empty residence hall rooms—a fortunate side effect of the pandemic—or in Mabee Dining Hall.
After a week of trying to control the chaos, including tracking down stranded food delivery trucks around town and unloading deliveries in the snow, Robles says, “We were all kind of down and tired at that point—and in walked these flowers and a huge card.” Students, led by InterVarsity, had gathered more than $2,700 in donations for the Dining Services employees and delivered the money to the staffers, complete with a large handmade card. “It really lifted everybody’s spirits,” Robles says. He emphasizes that his team wasn’t looking for recognition—they did it because it was the right thing to do.
“For a lot of us, it was the camaraderie of doing the right thing for everybody and taking care of people,” Robles says. “That’s our number one goal—to always do right by the students, faculty, and staff.”
We’re All in This Together
From pumping pool water to housing staffers overnight, Trinity’s employees put their heads together for creative solutions—a necessity when resources were lacking, says Ivan Pendergast.
“The biggest frustration was when we knew what we needed, but couldn’t access the limited resources,” Pendergast says. “It drove us to be creative in other ways to still try to provide those resources because, at the end of the day, it still needs to be done. We’ll try this avenue and that avenue, and if it doesn’t work, we’ll keep trying until something works.”
It was this creative thinking that led a variety of other departments to navigate this avalanche of a winter storm so successfully, too.
Residential Life exemplified what it means to put students first, communicating with students and parents daily and helping students move out of water-damaged City Vista apartments. Trinity University Police Department officers worked long shifts responding to emergencies, delivering water to students, and helping students access flushable toilets across campus. Academic Affairs and faculty revised teaching and testing schedules and foresaw faculty and student concerns. Strategic Communications and Marketing provided constant updates to on- and off-campus Tigers to keep Trinity connected. Information Technology Services worked around the clock to restore internet service to campus while monitoring and protecting network security, campus hardware, and infrastructure.
“All throughout the ranks, there were a lot of people who made sacrifices and went above and beyond,” Pendergast says proudly. “It makes Trinity not just a university, but a community and one heck of a large family.”
Charles Robles agrees. “When I first got to Trinity, they talked about being a part of the family. This experience was where I realized what my staff was saying,” he says. “This was one of those moments where everybody came together not for themselves, ego, or monetary rewards or bonuses. They came together to be a part of something bigger. This is what we do for family.”