- By Amy Milshtein
- June 1st, 2008
“Hurricanes happen,” said Mike Abbiatti, commissioner for technology and electronic learning, Louisiana State Board of Regents, of the inevitable. “The wind is going to blow, and the water will come. It’s what takes place after the storm that is important. Our plan is to succeed.” Abbiatti and his colleagues on the Gulf Coast learned much about emergency preparedness and recovery from their experiences with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. How much of that knowledge translates from weather-related events to other campus emergencies?
While the storms of 2005 proved noteworthy, Abbiatti quickly pointed out that “hurricanes have a season. Some years we have them and some years we don’t. But we will always have some other sort of crisis on campus, and we need to be prepared for everything.” These crises, from an active shooter to pandemic flu to a bomb threat, require similar planning to hurricane preparedness. How do these plans differ and how are they the same?
“No matter the situation, big or little, it all comes back to emergency operations,” observed Devin Broome, executive director of information technology and digital media, Louisiana State Board of Regents. “You have a standard order of operations and you work from there.” Broome admits that these plans are living documents and, as such, must be flexible. “In the case of Rita and Katrina, the crisis proved so widespread that many agencies were relying on the same resources,” he said. “Buses, for instance, were in high demand from all different sectors, but there were only so many to go around.”
Coordination Is Key
“Everyone has plans,” continued Abbiatti, “multiple plans. But campuses have to know how to interface with the community at large.” To keep from bumping into city and state plans, Abbiatti suggests dialoging with their neighbors to keep the interface running smoothly. “Misunderstandings happened when every agency went to their plan without coordinating with everyone else,” he said.
Still, any college’s priority is its own community. “The damage and aftermath caused by Katrina necessitated coordination with the state and city government,” said Dr. M. L. Cissy Petty, vice president for student affairs and associate provost, Loyola University. “But all in all, the University took care of getting students out of harm’s way and home. Still, we have a good working relationship with the New Orleans Police Department and the Tulane University Police Department.”
A storm of Katrina’s magnitude has changed the way Loyola New Orleans prepares for hurricanes. “Historically we looked at hurricanes and tropical storms as ‘three days out, three days back,’ meaning most storms warranting evacuation simply meant batten down the hatches, get students home, and then a quick turnaround back to campus,” explained Dr. Petty. “Obviously Katrina changed that thinking. Now we will evacuate sooner and for all categories of storms directly approaching the city.”
Individuals on campus must also personally prepare for emergencies. “Part of the freshman experience is to learn what you need to do in an emergency,” said Jackie Tisdale, executive director of student development and communication, Louisiana State Board of Regents. At Loyola, students must have a current and updated personal evacuation plan on file. This plan contains an evacuation location and personal contact information that allows the University to keep in touch. Faculty and staff evacuation forms are similar and processed through human resources.
A disruption the size of Katrina or Rita doesn’t mean that school is over. “It’s amazing how the schools came together to take care of each other after the storms,” remembered Broome. “Other institutions took our students in without knowing for how long or where the tuition money was coming from.”
“Academic continuity and business continuity remains something we plan for, be it in a storm situation or pandemic illness,” said Abbiatti. Broome agrees. “We still needed to make payroll even after the banks were gone after Katrina,” he recalled. “Surprisingly, a low-tech solution of Western Union solved that problem.” Even more surprisingly, everyone finished classes and graduated on time that year.
Making New Plans
At Loyola New Orleans there is now an academic affairs plan for disaster preparedness and recovery. This set of agreed-upon assumptions covers instructional responsibilities and enrollment policies and academic administration responsibilities. These documents make provisions for contingency residential student shelter: “We decided that we would no longer house students on campus during any hurricane/tropical storm,” said Dr. Petty. They also name a contingency university administration center so that essential operations can be resumed as soon as possible, and an on-campus emergency operations center to facilitate the work of essential personnel who remain on campus.
“I was a post-Katrina hire,” said Dr. Petty. “Shortly after my arrival, I learned that I was chair of the Hurricane Evacuation Planning Team!” To stay on top of the situation, she now subscribes to IMPACT weather. This service sends weather updates to cell phones and BlackBerry devices. “I now know quite a bit about South African weather patterns and their movements across a variety of bodies of water,” she said with a laugh.
Preparing for a Variety of Disasters
Large storms remain, of course, just one of many disasters that campuses must be prepared for. Other disasters that require the same amount of attention and training include pandemic illness, fire safety, active shooter incidents, and bomb threats. Each of these situations requires training and clear protocol. “Campuses need to have a very clear picture of themselves,” said Abbiatti. “They need to know where their security weaknesses are and how to improve them. We require an outside, independent firm to walk through the grounds and assess potential problems.”
A clear alert and notification system must also be in place. This can be as old-fashioned as a siren to as high-tech as text alerts. “Text messaging is getting a lot of press as a great savior, but it is just one part of the solution,” insisted Abbiatti. “There are a whole range of tools that should be employed.”
Lastly, exercising plans and staging mock situations prove important. “You can’t prepare enough,” said Tisdale. “We just did a full-scale rehearsal this week of an active shooter situation.”
No matter the situation, all schools, Gulf Coast or otherwise, prove resilient. “A winning attitude is the most effective bullet against any situation,” insisted Abbiatti. “Like I said before, our plan is to succeed.”