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Weathering the Storm

Following the worst hurricane season in memory, some Florida universities talk about how they kept students safe, minimized damages, and provided communication channels.
University Business, Nov 2004

To say that the late summer was a difficult time for Florida would be a bit of an understatement. While hurricanes and tropical storms are a seasonal expectation in the Sunshine State, this year saw an unprecedented four hurricanes--Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne--make landfall in quick succession. Emergency crews often had no time to clean up the damage from one storm before the next one hit. According to the Insurance Information Institute, in the final tally, statewide damage claims could reach $23 billion, a total exceeded only by the $32 billion in claims filed following the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

At Florida's colleges and universities, student and staff safety was the top priority during the storms, and the lessons they learned--unfortunately through repeated practice--could easily be applied to any IHE in the country.

Colleges and universities are entrusted with the health and well-being of thousands of students each semester, and the risk of legal reprisal is never too far from anyone's mind.

"As a society in general, people are looking more to shift responsibility for bad things having happened onto other entities, and the higher education realm is no exception," says Anne Franke, vice president of United Educators, a licensed insurance company owned and governed by more than 1,200 member colleges, universities, and related organizations.

Preparation and safety strategies, then, are the best way to reduce potential risk, and--particularly after 9/11--most schools have action plans in place to ensure the well-being of students and to resume operations quickly, but also to reinforce the notion that they are doing everything they can in the students' interest.

"These days, people are thinking about terrorism and natural disaster risks, and that is important. You need emergency response protocols and communication protocols," Franke says.

University of Central Florida administrators and staff had coincidentally completed a disaster drill a few weeks before Hurricane Charley threatened, says Tom Evelyn, assistant director of news and information. "It was a tabletop exercise, in which we pretended that a tornado had come through the campus and damaged some buildings," says Evelyn. "So when Charley approached, we had already gone through an exercise of how we would make the announcements that the storm was coming, and what we were doing with students and shelters, and how we would get the school back in shape for the students to return."

A couple days before the hurricane, UCF administrators began making announcements through campuswide e-mail and on the school's news website about when a decision would be made to close the university.

"Besides telling students where they would need to go for shelter, we also advised our faculty in how they could prepare their offices to protect equipment, and our researchers on how to protect their work," says Evelyn.

Making the decision to close at the right time was not taken lightly because, while most students would elect to remain in the shelter, a number of students with families elsewhere in the state wanted to leave campus to be with them. When a school is entrusted with the safety of thousands of students, accounting for their whereabouts is a daunting task at any time, but even more so during a disaster.

Just a few weeks later at the University of West Florida, Hurricane Ivan dealt a blow from which the school is still recovering, says Deborah Ford, vice president of Student Affairs. The university. located near Pensacola, closed on September 14 following damage from the storm, and was unable to reopen until October 5.

We advised our faculty in
how they could prepare their
offices to protect equipment,
and our researchers on how
to protect their work.
-Tom Evelyn, University of Central Florida

"We had a lot of buildings and other things that were damaged," says Ford. "All told, we lost probably 2,000 trees on campus. Our field house, where our athletic program, recreation programs, and our exercise science programs are housed, was badly damaged. That building will not be usable for about the next year. We also had a lot roof damage to other buildings, wet carpets, and so on." The total damage to the university was estimated to be about $15 million, says Ford.

"Our top priority, of course, was the safety of students, faculty, and staff on campus. We had students staying in a shelter on campus, but after we learned that we would not be opening for a few weeks, the students were sent home. Fortunately we have had no injuries during the storm," Ford says.

The school's website was a crucial element in keeping anxious parents alerted to developments. "Our marketing and communication staffs were fabulous throughout the storm, getting info onto the website," says Ford. "The folks in IT stayed on campus throughout the storms and made sure that everything remained operational. That turned out to be the best way for us to stay in touch. We also used the local media to get information out to the Associated Press wires so it would get picked up by the local press elsewhere."

Students were finally allowed to move back into their dorms on October 4. Part of the delay was caused by the fact that representatives from Housing and Resident Life at the 1,300-student school had to check each room in every building, and crews were hired to perform any cleanup operations from storm damage that occurred.

"After Charley, we delayed the beginning of the school year by a couple of days and notified all of the incoming freshman we could reach," recalls Rollins College (Winter Park, Fla.) President Lewis Duncan, who had just begun his tenure a few weeks earlier. "We had to tell them not to report for classes because we didn't have electricity restored on campus. We had no power for about three days, and the community lost it for five days. That was a risk management issue in itself, because dorms without power didn't have smoke alarms. We ordered more than 500 additional flashlights with batteries to be able to hand out to students if the power stayed off for a continued period of time, because we didn't want students lighting candles in dorm rooms without smoke alarms."

Rollins also created a system that has since become an integral part of the school's risk reduction program. Called the Student Storm Tracker, it is a homegrown web-based application that allows students to check in and keep in touch from anywhere, says Steve Neilson, dean of Student Affairs. Instead of tracking the storm, the college recorded in a web-based database where students went and a contact phone number where they could be reached. All students were asked to click on a home page icon and notify the school before they departed. Every parent also received e-mails outlining the college's efforts and how it would communicate with the students and their parents after the storm, as well as post-hurricane-status e-mails.

The idea came about almost as a throwaway suggestion, notes Neilson. "We were sitting around at lunch one day in August after Charley talking about how we could better manage communication in disasters, and our associate VP for Information Technology said he could come up with a little web-based program that will let the students tell us where they are going to go," he recalls. "We all thought it was a great idea. In about two days we had a really good program. We wanted it in case Mom called and asked where Susie was. We can't say we don't know. That's the wrong response in the middle of a hurricane. Instead, now we can say she's in the shelter, or she's told us she is with friends or whatever."

Using the Student Storm Tracker is a strictly voluntary thing, Nielson says, but the response has been overwhelming. "We had about 85 percent usage rate. I think what made it work better than it might have five years ago is that this generation of students really wants to tell us where they are going to be," Nielson says. "I believe that is part of the millennial generation; they are much more responsible and follow the rules and directions better than some of the previous generations did--mine included. This generation is pretty serious about it."

The web also proved to be a lifeline at UCF, notes Evelyn. "We encouraged everyone to look to our website for news about the storms and what we were doing to protect students. That was the one way we knew that anyone, no matter where they were--unless they were in the path of the hurricane--could know the status of our decisions to shelter students, close or when we would reopen.

"We found that the web was a successful mechanism, not just based on the amount of traffic that we had at our website, which increased dramatically, but also because we heard from parents," he says. "It's rare that you actually get nice calls and notes, but we did get quite a few of those from parents thanking us for keeping them updated and letting them know what was going on at the university."

Rollins is also fortunate to be home to one of the safest buildings in the region. The Bush Science Center was constructed in the '60s and built to the codes at that time. Bush is a four-story, 110,000-square-foot building. While not designed as a shelter, the building is described as "stout" and is a reinforced masonry structure without windows. During the hurricanes, offices, classrooms, and hallways at Bush were used as sleeping quarters. An interior auditorium housed the internet cafe, and food was served in an interior lobby. The building is the shelter for emergency personnel from the City of Winter Park in addition to the students, faculty, and staff who may wish to stay on campus during a disaster situation.

"As part of symbolic leadership I had my family stay with me and the students during the storm," says Duncan. "That was important because we needed to be able to tell the parents of the students that the decisions we were making for their children were the same ones we were making for our own families."

A large generator allowed the building to operate with a reasonable amount of power throughout the storm, says Nielson. "We had a Mac lab up and running the whole time, with about 40 computers. Food service continued with hot meals, and we had a room where we showed movies."

Importantly, the school was able to maintain internet access the entire time. "We took steps to make sure it didn't go down and that helped a lot with students' sanity. They could go online and communicate with their families, check the local weather reports and track the progress of the storm," says Nielson. "It makes a big difference for morale when you can provide those creature comforts."

Students could not leave the shelter until conditions were safe, he says, allaying concerns from parents. "We had no phone calls from parents that I know of about their children, and that was because of the communication that was continuously going out on the web and in e-mail," Nielson says.

By the time Hurricane Frances rolled in, the college had a pretty good idea what to expect, Duncan says. "For Frances, everyone knew exactly what they were doing, so it was almost a nonevent. We all knew the routine."

Another risk issue that administrators must deal with in the face of disasters is that closings may make it impossible for students to complete their studies as promised when they enrolled. After 9/11, many universities had to consider this risk, which Jean Demchek, managing director and global leader for Higher Education Practice at Marsh, Inc., calls a "failure to educate" issue. "If students were promised a certain curriculum and they were suddenly not able to continue that education in the same manner, there is certainly the potential for a lawsuit," she says.

Florida schools were fortunate in that the closures were temporary, and classes that couldn't take place in their original location were able to move to other buildings.

"Florida law requires 220 days of instruction a year at state institutions, and we schedule 225 days, so we have a five-day cushion in case anything happens," notes UCF's Evelyn, "though we could never have guessed we would have three hurricanes."

At press time, a decision had not been made about how missed days would be made up if more closures occur. "Some of the things we have considered would be to extend the semester, or canceling a holiday or two," he says. "It has also been suggested that we extend each class by seven minutes or so, as the local public schools are doing, so collectively by the end of the year it makes up the missing time."

At UWF, the administration has decided to extend the semester by two weeks at the end, with the exam week, which was supposed to run through December 10, now ending on December 17. There will be no separate final examination period. Instead, final projects, examinations, or take-home examinations may be given during the final week of classes. "We've asked faculty to combine the exams and their instruction into the final weeks of that semester," says Ford. "So when you look at it we will have only lost five instruction days." The school will also provide a process to address concerns or requests resulting from the revised schedule.

This generation of students
really wants to tell us
where they are going to be.
They are pretty serious
about it.
-Steve Nielson, Rollins College

But, as Evelyn notes, almost all of the 11 state schools have had closures because of the hurricanes, and the storm season doesn't end until November. "It may fall to the governor or the state board of education to decide on whether, because of the special circumstances, they may make some exceptions to the rule," he says.

As cleanup continues, and final damage estimates are tallied, Florida's colleges and universities can take away from this experience lessons that will serve them in other areas. Duncan, for example, says that the Student Storm Tracker might be adapted for use with Rollins students studying overseas.

"There's also a side benefit to this experience that I think we'll see for years," notes Neilson. "It builds a community and bonds people together. I think the college will be better off because of this. God knows we wouldn't have planned for this as a way to build community, but it's a nice side-product."

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