The Campus Recreation Facility as a Disaster Relief Shelter

April 05, 2011

George Brown
Director of University Recreation
University of Alabama

As Hurricane Katrina wrought damage previously unseen from a natural disaster on U.S. soil, the ensuing shelter relief efforts that local agencies and organizations put into place were evidence of the comprehensive attempts to assist those most dramatically affected by the devastation. Working in continuous concert with The University of Alabama (UA) Emergency response team and the guidance and assistance of the American Red Cross, the Student Recreation Center (SRC) served as a shelter for over 500 victims of the August/September 2005 hurricane for a period of almost 2 weeks. Key administrators and staff of UA and the American Red Cross were in early planning within 24-48 hours before the worst of the Hurricane hit the Louisiana and Mississippi gulf coasts. The SRC transformed into a medical, childcare, job placement, communication, food and housing hub within 48 hours of the worst damage from the breaking of the levees in New Orleans.
Working closely with the American Red Cross, Salvation Army and other national agencies, the SRC was faced with becoming something it was never truly prepared but saw the great need to become. Mobilizing these efforts whether it is a natural or man-made disaster requires planning and action steps that we now realize are essential “lessons learned” and valuable primer for future events. Campus recreation centers are attractive facilities for such relief efforts given the generally well-constructed framework, large open area (gym) access, multiple shower and toilet facilities and lower dwellings that are often constructed to withstand high winds and other weather-related impediments. For a recreation department that might be in this situation, the following checklist could prove to be a good resource.

The following checklist details the major issues that need to be addressed as part of your pre-disaster planning. Many of the steps (3-10) outlined can only be specifically addressed just prior to and/or during the disaster itself.


Step 1: Inventory Your Facility Resources
Know and document the sizes of rooms, bathrooms, showers, exterior and interior doors, communication sources, tables, chairs and other items that would reasonably be expected in the shelter.

Step 2: Diagram and Plan Facility Locations
Make a list of the areas where certain staging/triage and logistical support efforts will be held. Work closely with disaster relief agencies in determining the layout and flow of how evacuees will come into the recreation center and where they go to living quarters. Directional signage to essential areas (bathrooms, showers, medical assistance, food, etc.) needs to be clear and throughout the building.


Step 3: Check and Re-check Security
Recreation facility access and exit doors should be lockable and in good working order. Determine areas where unauthorized entrances could occur and staff or deter through signage. Utilize campus security and police to assist in security needs — by implementing walk through visits and providing a visible presence.

Step 4: Perform Regular Staff training and in-services
Campus recreation facilities will rely heavily on student staff to assist in logistical support and customer service assistance. Regular staff meeting discussions on who is responsible for what areas, how-to review on certain unusual occurrences and systematic checklists for staff coverage zones and primary areas of responsibility will alleviate much last-minute scurrying for work assignments.

Step 5: Plan for Donations/Volunteers
Set up a separate satellite site for charitable donations and volunteer assistance. Moving this away from the campus recreation facility allows for better full use of the shelter and keeps the implementation of volunteers controlled and less prone to chaotic over and under staffing situations. Empowering student organizations to assist in this area is a good way to increase student community service and volunteer spirit.

Step 6: Make Early Decisions about Child Care
Certain disaster-relief agencies will make provisions for childcare and prolonged educational assistance. Make sure campus recreation staff are fully aware of child care provisions. Determining off-limits areas of the facility early in the shelter relief plan will assist in safety and security. Areas such as pools, weight and fitness areas and saunas are generally not accepted areas for children to have access. Establish a dedicated space for nursery/childcare needs may be required given the diverse population in the building.

Step 7: Prepare for the Long Run
Proper stocking of essential items such as toilet paper, soap, paper towels and cleaning supplies may require more frequent ordering and timely deliveries. Additional garbage/refuse disposal systems will need to be determined. Additional housekeeping and overtime provisions may need to be enacted. On-call, after-hours facility operations and maintenance staff will need to be secured with as quick a response to breakdowns and repair needs as possible.

Step 8: Food Provisions
Determine a consistent and logistically accessible location for all food deliveries and distribution. Allow for coverage for inclement weather as well as adequate seating and clean-up for food serving. Determine staff and custodial schedules to allow for clean-up detail following meals.

Step 9: Recreation and Shelter??
An early decision about resuming or maintaining the campus recreation facility during shelter relief periods should be discussed. Determinants should be access and safety and staffing levels to perform both needs effectively.

Step 10: Psychological Counseling
Enlist the assistance of campus and community mental health professionals to become involved in assisting the evacuees and the staff working with disaster relief efforts. Be keen to signs of staff in distress and be ready to assist in their emotional needs.

For further information on The University of Alabama Student Recreation Center efforts during Hurricane Katrina as well as a detailed case management review of outcomes and recommendations from the disaster contact George Brown at or by phone at 205.348.3994.

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