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?