How Cooper Coped with "Superstorm" Sandy

POSTED ON: November 7, 2012

Peter Cooper Square with a fallen tree post-Sandy (photo courtesy of Sean Cusack)

Peter Cooper Square with a fallen tree post-Sandy (photo courtesy of Sean Cusack)

Cooper Union students, faculty and staff withstood an unprecedented disruption following the historic “superstorm” Sandy that made landfall in the early morning of October 29, 2012.  The Buildings and Grounds group, including its engineers, cleanup staff and security team along with the IT group particularly proved their mettle during a five-day power outage throughout lower Manhattan that kept Cooper Union closed for a week. 

On November 5th, the day Cooper fully reopened, President Bharucha greeted the Cooper community at Frankie’s, the small café tucked inside 41 Cooper Square where free hot cider and cookies were provided.  “I am glad to see you all here and that you are safe,” he said. “I would like to thank the many people who helped to protect and maintain Cooper Union.” The statement got a round of applause from the crowd that had gathered to check in on each other and gratefully acknowledge the efforts of those who helped maintain the school before, during and after the storm.

In advance of the storm’s arrival steps were taken to shore up the buildings. “We start from the top down,” Carmelo Pizzuto, Senior Maintenance Supervisor for Buildings and Grounds says. “We make sure all the drains are cleaned.  No loose stuff on the roof.  Then we go down floor-by-floor and make sure windows and doors are locked. In the basements we pick stuff up off the floor in case of flooding.  It takes some time.”

When Sandy hit landfall the winds were up to 80 miles an hour.  Fortunately the buildings sustained little damage, according to Pizzuto, though one of the trees in Cooper Square got blown over. “There was no flooding because there was so little rainfall,” Pizzuto says.

As is now well known the real challenges came with the storm surge of water flooding the coast, including an electrical sub-station that provided power for all of lower Manhattan. Cut off from the outer boroughs by flooded tunnels and without electricity or cell service, everything below 30th street became a kind of dead-zone.

The IT department set up a POTS phone, short for Plain Old Telephone Service, in the lobby of 41 Cooper Square.  With the digitally run phone system offline around campus this traditional landline, a network not affected by the storm, became the “lifeline” of the school, said Jody Grapes, Director of Facilities Mangement.

The security team maintained a 24/7 presence, except during the height of the storm when all buildings were shut tight, according to Jody Grapes.  “We don’t want to lock anybody in there in the dark,” he said.  The security sub-contractor, FJC Security, provided van shuttle services to relieve personnel since there was no mass transit available during the blackout.

Though the academic buildings were closed the residence hall where many Freshmen remained became a focus of concern.  Roberto Vasquez of Buildings and Grounds, who manages the building’s maintenance team, says many of his staff worked 48-hour shifts the week after the storm by camping out in the basement. "Some of the people who work with me here know this building better than anyone else," Vasquez says, describing how his team continuously monitored the residence hall during the days of no power to ensure students remained safe, particularly with the increased threat of fire and gas leakage. One crew member, Carlos Anasco, walked to Cooper Union from his home in the Bronx to get to work on the Wednesday following the storm.

Dean of Students Linda Lemiesz along with Residence Hall Manager Chris Chamberlin were also on hand throughout the week. “After the power went out, we encouraged students to find alternative housing if they could, so we could focus our resources on those that had nowhere else to go,” Chamberlain says, “By Thursday, all of our resident students had temporarily relocated."  Some students found temporary housing with local residents.  One parent, Ansel Rulona, wrote on Cooper’s Facebook wall, “My family would like to extend our sincerest gratitude to the Hunters family who accommodated my son & friends in their loving home .... Unconditionally....thank you!”

Students and others living nearby made do.  David Lee, a chemical engineering student living in the East Village who attended the welcome-back gathering said he used his student ID to spend time at NYU’s Bobst Library while it remained open.  “I went to sleep much earlier than usual,” he added.  Many area residents walked or biked uptown to charge their cell phones or buy groceries. “It was weird. As soon as you crossed 30th street, suddenly everything was normal.  The lights were on and stores were open.” says Bosko Blagojevic, a public affairs staff member and East Village resident.

With power restored by Friday evening some buildings were open again on Saturday.  Students, faculty and staff finally returned in full on Monday, a week after the storm hit.  Many student-led efforts immediately began focusing resources on helping those left far worse off by Sandy’s devastation.  Members of campus groups Hillel, Intervarsity, and the Society for Women Engineers, for example, installed a food and clothing collection bin in the lobby. 

Uyen Nguyen, a mechanical engineering sophomore who helped found Cooper Union's origami club, sat at a table in the lobby of 41 Cooper Square selling origami to raise money for New York Cares.  “I invited our members over to my house, on the Upper East Side, where I was lucky enough to have power," Nyugen says. "We decided that whatever we made that weekend we would sell to raise money for hurricane relief efforts." After the first day Uyen Nguyen reports that her origami sale was a “huge success” earning over $500.

Meanwhile, classes have resumed and the work at Cooper Union continues after an extraordinary, not long forgotten interruption. 

There are a number of fund-raising and donation opportunities at Cooper.  Here are some:

Food & Clothing Drive

41 Cooper Square lobby

Collecting canned goods, clothing, flashlights, etc.

Origami Sale

Nov. 5 - 9 in 41 Cooper Square lobby

Distribute donations via Feed500 @ NYU

Saturday, Nov. 10 AM in 41 Cooper Square lobby

After meeting in lobby, travel to NYU and get sent out with goods to bring to needy storm victims.  Please RSVP at by Thursday 9/8 at noon and bring at least a $5 Metrocard.

Fundraising Breakfast

Tuesday, November 13 11 AM - 1 PM @  Frankie's

$5 a plate breakfast with proceeds going to Sandy relief. Security, B&G and IT personnel eat free!

Blood Drive

Tuesday Nov. 13, 12 - 6PM in Foundation Building colonnade

Sock Drive

Nov. 12 - 16 in 41 Cooper Square lobby

Donate socks for the needy

Benefit Concert

Saturday Nov. 17, 7:30 PM in Great Hall

The Coopertones, CooperNova, Sons of Pitches and others perform for suggested donation of $15

  • Founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offers education in art, architecture and engineering, as well as courses in the humanities and social sciences.

  • “My feelings, my desires, my hopes, embrace humanity throughout the world,” Peter Cooper proclaimed in a speech in 1853. He looked forward to a time when, “knowledge shall cover the earth as waters cover the great deep.”

  • From its beginnings, Cooper Union was a unique institution, dedicated to founder Peter Cooper's proposition that education is the key not only to personal prosperity but to civic virtue and harmony.

  • Peter Cooper wanted his graduates to acquire the technical mastery and entrepreneurial skills, enrich their intellects and spark their creativity, and develop a sense of social justice that would translate into action.