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Polar vortex nearly derails Louisiana trip

Alternative winter break 2014

UB students experienced a four-day layover at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on their way to Louisiana for alternative winter break.

By CORY NEALON

Published January 23, 2014

“I think the best part of our trip was seeing our team make the most of an unpredictable ride.”
Victoria Robbins, UB student

The trouble began before they received the first of many complimentary snack bags.

Upon arriving at Buffalo Niagara International Airport on Saturday, Jan. 4, 13 students and two staff members participating in UB’s alternative winter break received some bad news. Their 6:30 a.m. flight to Chicago would not leave Buffalo until 10:30 a.m.

The delay wasn’t too surprising. After all, temperatures nationwide plunged to record lows because a massive influx of bone-chilling Arctic air called a “polar vortex” had blanketed much of the country.

The group cleared airport security and passed time on their smartphones, sleeping and talking about the volunteer work they planned to do in Louisiana. Philip Chan, a junior environmental engineering student from Brooklyn, remembers thinking the delay wasn’t too bad. They’d be arriving in New Orleans, where it was 60 degrees, later that night, he said to himself.

He was wrong. It got worse. Much worse.

The 13 students — one student flew directly from her home in New York to New Orleans — arrived at Chicago O’Hare International Airport to learn their connecting flight was delayed. The airline delayed the flight two more times before cancelling it. About half the students boarded another airplane bound for New Orleans. They never left the runway; that flight, too, was canceled.

“We were disappointed but at the same time we made the best of the situation. The airline gave us vouchers for meals and a hotel,” Chan wrote in an email.

The group reserved seats on a flight scheduled to leave early Sunday. But with the weather getting worse — near constant snow and a wind chill that made it feel like negative 11 degrees — the flight was cancelled. A flight scheduled that night also was cancelled.

It was more of the same Monday. Instead of spending the day in the airport or a hotel, the students decided to see Chicago — never mind that the wind chill made it feel like negative 33 degrees outside. They visited the Art Institute of Chicago, home to Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” and other famous works.

There were no flights the next day. Given the uncertainty of reaching Louisiana, the group decided to do volunteer work in Chicago. While searching online, they found Pacific Garden Mission, a shelter about 50 minutes away by train.

“At this point, we weren’t sure if we’d ever reach Louisiana. So we decided to do some community service in Chicago. The students took it upon themselves to find the shelter, make the necessary arrangements and turn what could’ve been a frustrating situation into a meaningful learning experience. If sustainability is about resilience in the face of challenges, then our students are as sustainable as they come,” says Jim Simon, UB sustainability engagement coordinator who organized and co-led the trip with Liz Hladczuk, reservations coordinator in the Division of Student Affairs. The trip was organized by the Center for Student Leadership and Community Engagement as part of its alternative winter break initiative.

Intercoastal waterway, Louisiana

Students placed Christmas trees along the shores of the Intracoastal Waterway to prevent erosion.

On Wednesday, after their flight had been delayed or canceled nine times, the group finally left for New Orleans. A whirlwind of activities followed as the group crammed six days of volunteer work into three days.

The students visited Nicholls State University farm, where they pulled weeds, cleaned planting pots and learned about the different types of plants and vegetation on the bayou. The following day they placed roughly 1,500 Christmas trees into wooden cribs. The cribs are placed along the shore of the Intracoastal Waterway to prevent erosion. They returned to Nicholls State on Friday, where they continued to volunteer and learn about the effects of the BP oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico.

Victoria Robbins, a psychology major from Niskayuna, said Louisiana was an eye opening experience.

“I learned how important the wetlands are to the livelihood of those who reside in close proximity to them,” she says.

The group managed to see the French Quarter in New Orleans on Saturday before flying out. But bad luck reared its head again; the group missed its connecting flight to Buffalo and was forced to spend an unexpected night in Charlotte, N.C. Unlike Chicago, though, they caught the next plane home.

“I think the best part of our trip was seeing our team make the most of an unpredictable ride,” Robbins says.

READER COMMENT

Very proud of our students and their ability to persevere, stay optimistic and, most importantly, do great work with the community in Chicago and the bayou.

 

Ryan McPherson