Forces of nature converge on campus

Earthquake, hurricane, fire, and power outages occur over year

Despite the blatant lack of the anticipated apocalypse, 2012 was a good year for disasters. Last year saw several out-of-the-ordinary occurrences, including a hurricane, two major power outages, and a small earthquake.

Fire in Boston

March 13, 2012 saw the Boston skyline go dark after a major transformer failure in the Back Bay, causing a three-alarm fire that destroyed the parking garage of the Back Bay Hilton and left over 21,000 people without power.

Much of the city lost power; from Citgo all the way to the Public Gardens. Seventeen MIT fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups (FSILGs) lost power from that Tuesday night until late Wednesday and Thursday evening. The over 400 students affected by the outage were invited to stay on campus if they needed power. According to Dennis Collins, Director of Housing, the Housing Office keeps a list of spare rooms and cots in case of emergencies.

The problematic transformer was in the Scotia Street Substation, near the parking garage of the Back Bay Hilton. The cause of the outage was a connector failure between the high voltage transmission system and the substation.

The Back Bay fire came two days after a two-alarm forest fire in Fenway, which burned for 30 minutes and spread ash throughout Boston. The lack of snow last winter and the recent warm weather made the brush particularly dry — creating conditions ripe for fire.


A small 4.0 earthquake hit New England on Oct. 16. Its epicenter was in Maine, which started shaking at 7:12 p.m. There was no reported damage, and Cambridge residents only experienced weak shaking. Students around campus were surprised, and mailing lists were abuzz with chatter. “Next House is made of jello,” wrote one student.

This quake was the first to be felt in the area since August of 2011, when a 5.8 tremor traveled from Virginia to shake Boston in its most powerful earthquake in 67 years.

Hurricane Sandy

Oct. 20, 2012, MIT closed due to worries about Hurricane Sandy. Classes were officially canceled, and all non-essential personnel were off work for the three shifts of the day. Urgent Care remained open, though the rest of MIT Medical closed.

The MBTA was closed by 2 p.m., and the U.S. stock markets closed in preparation for the storm as well. This was the first market-wide shutdown since September 2001 (and the first weather-induced shutdown in 27 years), and the market also remained closed on Oct. 31.

Sandy brought winds of over 65 miles an hour to Massachusetts, with the Green Building weather station monitoring gusts peaking at 40 mph. Sandy was the second largest Atlantic Storm in the past 24 years (which is how long hurricane data has been tracked), having broken Hurricane Lili’s record from 1996. Tens of thousands of homes in Massachusetts lost power, to say nothing of the incredible havoc wrought on New Jersey and New York. Many places around the northeast are still feeling the repercussions of the storm, and damage is visible throughout the eastern seaboard.

MIT was one of the many schools to shut down for the day. All public schools in the Boston metropolitan area were closed, and a number of other colleges — including Harvard University, Boston University, Babson College, Wellesley College, and Northeastern University — shut operations down on Monday in preparation for Sandy.

Hurricane Sandy was touted as the second “Perfect Storm” after the deadly storm of 1991, which inspired the 2000 film of the same name starring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg.

Cambridge power outage

The other side of the Charles River experienced a power outage in 2012 as well. On Nov. 29, MIT, Harvard, and the surrounding area lost power from 4:26 to 6:37 p.m. due to a downed transmission line. Nearly 17,000 NStar customers were estimated to be without power.

All non-essential power was cut around campus. Lights remained on in dormitory hallways and stairwells, though rooms were dark. A number of lights in the Infinite and street lamps around MIT were also off. MIT Medical shut down normal services and switched to Urgent Care.

Rumors swirled about a deer that had been struck near the Kendall Tunnel and caused the trouble. The rumor originated on Twitter and was false.

Students gathered in hallways and a number of classes and tests were canceled in response to the outage.