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Car accident to blame for campus, city power outage

February 7, 2008

‘Twas the night before classes, and the students did shout. The school had gone dark, for the power was out.

Around 8 p.m., Jan. 27, as students and staff were settling in and preparing for the beginning of a new semester, the entire UW-River Falls campus lost electricity and, with the exception of some emergency backup systems, stayed that way for nearly two hours.

The outage occurred when a vehicle crashed into a transmission pole east of the city near the intersection of County Roads M and JJ, said Jan Lorenz, a spokeswoman for River Falls Municipal Utilities, the company that provides electricity to River Falls and the surrounding area.

Lorenz said about 20 percent of their coverage area was affected by the outage. This included parts of the city’s east and south sides as well as the entire University campus.

Sophomore Ashley Taylor was in her room in Hathorn Hall when the blackout occurred.

“My lights went out and my computer shut down,” Taylor said, who was uploading photos at the time. “It was really frustrating.”

Among many other Hathorn residents, mass confusion began to take hold.

“Everyone was out in the hall,” Taylor said. “People were actually screaming.”

After a few tense moments, the backup generators kicked in and the hall lights turned back on. But the problems were far from over.

“You had to keep your door open because the room lights were still out,” Taylor said.

Eventually, the noise became too much and she decided to finish her work at a nearby friend’s house who still had power. Taylor said when she returned around 10 p.m., the power had only been back for a short time.

A sustained power outage can cause several safety and comfort issues, Dick Trende, director of Public Safety said. Fortunately, no one was hurt during the blackout and the facilities were able to remain warm until the heat turned back on, Trende said.

Trende commended students and residence hall staff for their handling of the situation. “Residential life did an excellent job keeping order,” he said. “Students were very respectful and we had no major issues.”

The blackout did, however, present a major dilemma for the staff at Information Technology Services, better known as ITS. Though university computer systems can run on battery power for a short period of time, the length of Sunday’s outage required a manual shut down, said Lisa Wheeler, executive director of ITS.

“Services need to be shut down in a particular order and brought back up in a particular order as well,” she said. “With over 150 servers in the campus network, this is not a quick process.”

Staff members worked into the night, some until 2 a.m., to make sure everything went smoothly. Fortunately, all operations, including the transfer of files for the new FalconFile, escaped unscathed.

“Restoration actually went better and faster than we anticipated,” said Wheeler. “So everything was back up on Monday.”

A similar outage occurred in May of last year, and in Aug. 2006, the University was without power for over 24 hours, the longest blackout in recent history.

This lengthy recovery process may soon be a thing of the past. According to Wheeler, a state-funded generator capable of providing sustained back-up power is expected to be installed near the end of the semester.

“A generator will be a great benefit to the entire campus,” Wheeler said.