Disaster Preparedness

When Hurricane Isabel struck Virginia last September 19, college and university officials all along the East Coast had plenty of advance warning to put their disaster plans into action. On September 20, some of those same officials were breathing a sigh of relief as they surveyed their campuses and found precious little damage in the storm's aftermath.

And so, what turned out to be the happy ending of one story for some is also the beginning of a second story -- a story about being prepared for disaster.

"When we learned that Isabel might make landfall in Connecticut, we deployed our crisis management team," says Joseph Rubertone, director of Facilities at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., which has 6,000 FTE. In addition to Rubertone, the university's team includes the senior associate director of Facilities, associate director of Facilities, superintendent of Mechanical Services, director of Food Service, chief of Security and Safety, dean of Students, director of Student Health Services, director of Residence Life, vice president of Public Affairs, director of Public Relations, director of Administrative Services, associate director of Telephone Communications, associate vice president for Academic Affairs and an Information Security officer.

The crisis management team held a series of meetings, the first of which was September 16, three days before the storm was scheduled to make landfall. "At this meeting, we put our plan into place," says Rubertone.

"In each of those areas of expertise, we laid out concerns that the department heads had," says Rubertone. "We assumed the worst-case scenario - facing a long electrical outage. On the facilities side, we talked about staffing, topping off our generation capacity with diesel fuel and then testing all of the capacity that we had. We also reviewed the evacuation plan, especially moving students from residence halls without emergency power to the gymnasium."

Additionally, the Facilities staff explained to the committee what would and would not have power in the case of an electrical outage. "For example, in the Science Department, we have two -270°F freezers," says Rubertone. "We needed a plan to keep them running. That building has partial generator service, so we planned to use small, homeowner-type generators to keep the freezers running."

At the end of the meeting, "We asked everyone to go back to their departments and discuss with their people whether there were issues we were missing," Rubertone says.

They bought plywood, duct tape and all of the small consumable stuff that you go through in such a crisis. "We rented some equipment, like a wood chipper, that we don't have in our inventory," says Rubertone. "We rented a 40-ft. freezer truck and a 40-ft. refrigerator truck that were diesel powered. They would back up any problems we would have in Food Service. We have 72 apartments on campus, each with a refrigerator. With an extended outage, the trucks would give us an opportunity to store food from those refrigerators so that it wouldn't be lost."

Meanwhile, further south, administrators at Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC) in Annandale, which boasts 30,000 FTE, were doing much the same thing. Charlie Sakowicz, Facilities manager for the Annandale campus, shares some specifics: "We picked up and secured all trash cans, cigarette urns, lawn furniture and items that were not anchored down. We removed all loose items from roof tops, including walking pads. We ensured that all the roof drains and scuppers were open and clear. We made sure all storm drains, drop inlets and curb inlets were open and clear. We shut down all unnecessary HVAC equipment. We e-mailed faculty and staff to turn off or unplug all computers or any other unnecessary electrical equipment. We had two to three people at each campus, depending on the size of the campus, who stayed all night, and we ensured that they had sump pumps, wet vacs, plastic and tape."

In the end, Sakowicz is happy to report that, other than losing some trees, the only damage at NVCC was a broken third-floor window caused by roof panels that blew off another building. The cost of replacing the window and roof panels was a mere $5,300. Rubertone notes that Quinnipiac suffered no losses. He notes: "At our second meeting, which was 24 hours after the first, the storm no longer appeared to be a threat to us. Still, we put our plan into place. It proved to be a good organizational drill."

What did Rubertone learn from this experience? "We added a couple of things to our disaster plan," he says. "We discussed the need for an alternate water supply in the event that we lose public water service. We came up with, and we're investigating the possibility of having available, a tanker truck -- like a pool water dealer. We would have it on standby, like we have our diesel fuel supplier on standby.

"We discussed the possibility of roads being closed and not being able to get to campus. We're investigating designating a number of people as 'essential personnel' and changing their college IDs to reflect this status. The back of the ID explains to local law enforcement agencies that these people are essential and to please let them through to carry out their duties.

"One thing we had been working on before Isabel is setting up a medical triage team. We have a Physician Assistant and a Nursing program. The faculty is working with the Senior Associate Director to develop a list of volunteer students who have the medical training to treat multiple injuries in a medical crisis.

"We're also concerned with an emergency communication plan. We have a polling institute, Quinnipiac Poll, which includes a phone room equipped with 40 phones. We have set up a response team in the event that we face a crisis that generates a huge amount of phone calls. We have put the technology in place to switch the phone bank to this room so we can have 40 trained people answering phones."

Sakowicz has some disaster advice to share with fellow facility managers: "At our campuses, the facilities people have radios so they cancommunicate with the police, and that helps in the coordination of traffic control and securing areas that may have sustained damage. For example, we're at the intersection of two major streets. A campus tree came down in one of those streets during the hurricane. We were able to communicate by radio with Fairfax County police and work with them to clear the tree and keep traffic moving.

"Keeping people onsite who can react to damage that may occur during the storm mitigates the amount of damage that occurs. For example, we were able to immediately cover the broken window as opposed to letting rain continue to pour in and create more damage."

Sakowicz's most important advice? "Put together a plan of what you need to do to prepare for disasters, including hurricanes, tornadoes and other manmade or natural disasters. It helps to be able to go down a checklist and know ahead of time the things you need to take care of."

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