Sunday, October 09, 2016


Disaster Recovery

Last Friday, I had a planning conversation with the senior leadership of the college around contingency plans for what to do if Hurricane Matthew struck New Jersey hard.  It’s not an entirely theoretical discussion; a few years ago, Hurricane Sandy did major damage here.  

With Matthew, we were luckier than many colleges in the Southeast.  Flagler College, in Florida, apparently sustained major damage, and many colleges and universities in the region had to do evacuations.  For a university that draws students from around the country, that’s no small task.

Every disaster is local, in certain ways, and some of the dangers vary by region.  In the Northeast, we worry about ice storms and blizzards, and, in coastal areas, hurricanes.  In the Midwest, it’s blizzards and tornadoes.  In the South, hurricanes and floods probably take the top spot.  Along the west coast, I’d guess that earthquakes are the greatest fear.  (I still haven’t recovered from the New Yorker piece last year about the Cascadia fault line, and its possible effects on the Seattle area.  Scary stuff.)  

Those are just the natural disasters.  Manmade ones are even worse.  Abrupt violence is a fear everywhere.  What happened at Umpqua Community College could happen anywhere, at any time.  

And yet, disaster management and recovery tend to get neglected in most leadership development programs.  The people who abruptly find themselves needing to make decisions in a crisis are generally forced, by default, to wing it.

I mentioned last Spring a panel featuring some of the people who helped Umpqua in the immediate aftermath of the killings.  It was extraordinary in both senses of the word: it was excellent, which is great, but it was also uncommon.  I’ve attended conferences of the League for Innovation and the AACC for years, but have seen very few presentations on disaster management and recovery.  I’d rather learn some of these lessons in advance from people who have learned them the hard way than make preventable mistakes myself.  

Let’s say that an evacuation-level disaster strikes just before the tenth day of the semester.  What do you do about financial aid reporting?  Or a similar event happens during exam week.  How do you get back on track?  Or my singular nightmare, a killing on the order of Umpqua happens.  How do you decide when to come back?  What’s the best way to work with a college full of people who handle grief and fear in different ways?  

Obviously, context matters.  But having a sense of where to begin can only help.

As colleges grow more complicated, and budgets grow tighter, the questions get harder.  How do you do an abrupt evacuation when you have students or employees with limited physical mobility?  What about students who rely on public transportation, which may or may not be able to adjust quickly?  

I’d rather have provisional answers to these questions before I need them.  

I haven’t found much in the way of “how-to” resources.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you found anything helpful?  

Actually, on the West Coast fires are a bigger hazard than earthquakes. There is very little evacuation and relatively few lives lost in quakes in the past several decades.

I assume that the 10th day is the 10th actual day, not counting days that are not "days of instruction" because the college was closed.

The end just comes sooner unless you miss more days than are allowed to make it a valid semester, but the start is just the same as if there was a national holiday when classes do not meet.
Re: evacuation of disabled, I recall having an engineering colleague (back when I worked in industry) who was confined to a wheelchair. The building equipment included a lightweight chair-relacement contraption on which she could be carried down the stairs. It was more of a platform than a chair (no wheels, and I don't think it had legs). The planning also included strong coworkers who could do the lifting. I don't recall the backup plan in case the colleagues were away or if she was in a meeting elsewhere.

Generalizing, perhaps that is safety equipment that can be available? Perhaps there are grant funds that can provide for such equipment, in lieu of the money fairy?
From 2010 Christchurch had a sequence of earthquakes that resulted in loss of life and a lot of destruction included interruption to education at the University of Canterbury. I did a google search on "earthquakes university Christchurch" and this document popped up.

University of Canterbury Emergency Response Plan June 2014
Which looks like a pretty comprehensive document written with considerable experience.

Which in turn led me to
I thank MPledger for those links. I am on the faculty of a state university in Savannah, Georgia. We are still repairing the damage from Hurricane Matthew, which struck us Friday night. It is not our first evacuation. In 1999 we evacuated from Hurricane Floyd, although it turned at the last minute and hit North Carolina. This blog post raises important questions, not only about how to assist traumatized students, but also about how to handle more practical problems. Matthew hit at the end of a mini-mester, during final exams. During campus closure, we were supposed to begin another mini-mester. My colleagues are scrambling to adjust their syllabi. The previous term's grades have not yet been posted. What will students do about prerequisites they were trying to meet for their classes that Matthew has delayed? When we returned to campus after Floyd, the university system advised faculty to be creative in figuring out how to make up for lost time. But as Dean Dad points out, natural disaster also raises problems with respect to financial aid, student housing, and food services. Adjustments to the academic calendar are just the beginning...
The certifying body for disaster recovery planners is the Disaster Recovery Institute International. I went through several of their trainings about a dozen years ago, and they were good. There are quite a few planning tools wandering around the web.
In my experience, the big challenge is getting all the important decision makers together and figuring out what the critical issues would be and how they would be handled before the crisis hits. Trying to get that to happen in a corporation was tough. Thinking about making that occur in a college setting makes me break out in hives.
The other challenge is, once the plan is developed, walking through the plan over and over again until you've found all the bad assumptions you cooked into the plan and fixed them.
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