Hurricane Katrina — Emergency Response – Lessons Learned

April 07, 2011

Missie McGuire
Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs
Tulane University

Emergency Preparedness begins with an organized university-wide pre-storm and post-storm response to any natural disaster your campus may be susceptible to. There should be three primary objectives to an emergency plan in a collegiate environment: 1) to provide safety and security for students, faculty and staff, 2) to assist in minimizing and mitigating property damage, and 3) to provide a blueprint for the restoration and resumption of academic and business operations.

After a full year of recovery from the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States, Tulane University, city and federal government and the citizens of New Orleans have had time to reflect and regroup in order to make practical use of the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina. From a university perspective it became very apparent that having a well-written plan that clearly identified the steps to be taken wasn’t nearly enough. Execution of an emergency preparedness plan mandates the full understanding and participation of those individuals that will be required to implement it. Although this may seem to be the most basic and elementary concept, it is critical that educational institutions with multiple layers of administration and interdependencies are unified in their approach to emergency planning and response. Any type of emergency plan must be communicated and widely distributed well in advance. There has been a major commitment and effort by most New Orleans institutions to educate all incoming students and their parents to have their own personal evacuation plans prepared in advance of the students’ arrival. It is far easier to announce a university closure and prepare for an approaching emergency with fewer individuals on campus and underfoot.

Each emergency plan should clearly identify the source for emergency related information and directives. Tulane University utilizes a specific website which has been designated as the institutions “official” source for information. In the event the University’s server and network go down, it becomes critical that all information has been synchronized to a “hot site” geographically removed from the institution. Regrettably, very few universities impacted by Hurricane Katrina and Rita had implemented this precautionary measure. In the past, technology safeguarding was limited to backing up data, pulling hard drives, powering down and relocating equipment to higher ground.

Depending upon the type of emergency you are planning for, all emergency support agreements should be negotiated in advance. Specific to hurricane preparedness Tulane University has pre-negotiated agreements to provide chartered transportation to assist with evacuation, off-site housing for those staff and students that have to be evacuated which also includes arrangements to accommodate the Emergency Operations Group consisting primarily of senior level administrators. Restoration services and additional campus security arrangements have also been pre-negotiated.

Communication failure proved to be the most frustrating and disabling for both the university and the city. As the City of New Orleans began to fill with floodwater and all infrastructures were submerged, Tulane University, a $700 million operation with over 10,000 students and 6,000 faculty and staff was left with virtually no means of communication. Despite satellite phones, cellular services and emergency radio frequencies, text messaging became the only successful means of communication. With cell towers destroyed all cell service within the storm-damaged area codes was eliminated. Compounded by the loss of the university’s network, the only means of effective communication was dependent upon the acquisition of cell service from an out-of-state carrier which included an out of state area code. The ability to establish an alternative email address was the only way internet communication could be maintained. Web-based communities such as Face Book and My Space allowed displaced students to communicate with one another and daily blog postings provided a steady source of information until data communication was restored. As a result of this experience, all university faculty, staff and students are encouraged to maintain alternative email addresses and a single point of contact for emergency information in the event of any future mandatory evacuations.

The last piece of crucial advice I can provide you with is to encourage you to maintain a current and accurate physical inventory of all departmental assets. Most universities have property management divisions to track and record the institution’s assets but rarely are these lists updated or verified annually. The need for an accurate inventory becomes paramount in terms of your ability to document losses for insurance purposes. It is also important to understand in advance the extent of your university insurance coverage and the deductibles.

Emergency preparedness and the need for it will effect most of us at one time or another. Be prepared with a plan that your staff and student employees are familiar with and are able to execute. Be sure that your plan clearly identifies each individual’s responsibility and that you include a chain of command and communication protocols. Educate your constituents through awareness and communications. Your best defense is an organized pre-storm preparation and post-storm response.


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