Friday, November 2, 2012

All Colleges Need Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Mitigation Expertise

The number of colleges and universities in the mid-Atlantic states and beyond, including New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania that have had to cancel classes for the entire week because of the aftermaths of Hurricane Sandy is not trivial. Large research universities such as NYU had to evacuate its students post Hurricane Sandy, once backup generators in dorms started to fail, and even managed to evacuate a hospital with dramatic news coverage and chilling scenes of medical personnel physically pumping air into babies as they were carried downstairs. Smaller colleges such as Manhattan College in NYC, Sacred Heart University in Connecticut to Lehigh University in Pennsylvania  have also cancelled classes for the week and the list goes on.

Many colleges and surrounding areas are still without electric power, over 4 days since Hurricane Sandy made landfall in New Jersey,  and have had to cope with fallen trees, damaged property, possible flooding, while ensuring that the students, faculty, and staff are free from injuries. Even Princeton University was not unscathed.

However, the state-of-affairs  is clearly no longer "business as usual" and unless colleges and universities establish knowledgeable, specially trained departments to prepare for emergencies, including natural disasters, and know how to mitigate risk and enhance recovery, valuable momentum will be lost, possible damage increased, and even reputations sullied.

Colleges, as some have done, cannot simply appoint ad hoc committees when a disaster such as Hurricane Sandy strikes.

Some have learned from previous disasters. Our area of Massachusetts, for example, last year (2011) was the site of a June 1 tornado, Hurricane Irene that struck in late August and was called a once in a 500 years flood, and the Halloween snowstorm that caused days-long power outages.

UMass Amherst, with its experts in emergency preparedness, did a wonderful job throughout and I personally commend and thank Mr. Thomas O'Regan  for ensuring the safety and business continuity of our campus during last year's major weather events. He also came to my Humanitarian Logistics and Healthcare class last Spring and spoke on the topic to the mesmerized class and told us of how UMass even delivered cots to neighboring colleges after the snowstorm and provided assistance, and with trees downed on roads, this was not easy to do. Luckily, UMass Amherst never lost power during this unprecedented October snowstorm, partially, because it has its own co-generation power plant.

Many colleges and universities pride themselves on having students from numerous states and from many countries. When a natural disaster strikes which affects transportation systems and shuts them down  one can't just tell students "to go home" without providing any assistance or places that they can obtain safe shelter.

In the case of Hurricane Sandy, many students in colleges in the affected areas, since they are densely populated, may have no homes to go to and we know personally of several of such cases.

Evacuations -- as Governor Christie of New Jersey and Mayor Bloomberg vociferously noted as Hurricane Sandy was approaching and the weather forecasts were warning of a superstorm -- need to happen before the weather events strike an area. For example, my husband's university, the University of Hartford in Connecticut, last year had much of its campus lose power and had parts of the grounds flooded and housed students temporarily in the cafeteria. This year, in anticipation of Hurricane Sandy, the campus was informed on Saturday that classes would be cancelled through Wednesday, giving sufficient time, before the storm struck, to evacuate and find appropriate shelter. The campus, luckily, this year, during and post Sandy,  did not lose power and classes resumed yesterday with my husband distributing Halloween candy to his students who were very happy to see him (and the candy).

Having personal experiences with colleges and those affected in disasters from Hurricane Katrina to the above storms and now Hurricane Sandy, colleges need to provide transportation (or provide a safe option) for students to evacuate and  to, subsequently,  return to campuses. They also need to, if necessary, find appropriate shelter for them (and several are doing this).

Safety should always come first and when a campus is running on minimal power with only a building or two with power, if that, extraordinary measures need to be undertaken.

Managing a crisis, day by day, without adequate preparation and planning, may lead to great uncertainty, anxiety, and may generate a chaotic and, hence, unsafe, atmosphere.

Finally, colleges must work closely with their electric power providers to establish good relationships so that it is understood that a community of hundreds, if not thousands, from many different parts of the country and globe, needs to be kept safe and energy restored as soon as possible.

And, yes, my daughter is at a college that has cancelled classes all this week and, given my uncanny intuition, and overanalysis of the outage maps in the surrounding areas, my projection is that power will not be restored within the week.

The costs to education and confidence are enormous.

A positive, nevertheless, is that personally learning how to manage disruptions in real-time as well as gaining resiliency is valuable knowledge even in a changed landscape in which you cannot find a way of getting safely back home.