Have you read your college’s emergency plan lately?

Mary Graham, president of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, and Stephen Head, chancellor of Lone Star College in Texas, share advice on developing emergency preparedness plans. (Photo: Matthew Dembicki)

DALLAS — Over his 35 years at Lone Star College in Texas, Chancellor Stephen Head has been through at least three major storms that resulted in significant damage from rain, flooding, wind and ice.

Yet even this veteran college leader says he learned a few things after Hurricane Harvey last August, which caused $40 million in damage to the system’s campuses.

Speaking at a session at the American Association of Community Colleges annual convention, Head and Mary Graham, president of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College (MGCCC), offered advice based on their experiences preparing for emergencies, which ranged from common-sense actions to ones that require more coordination and planning.

A few of the simpler things to remember: If flooding is possible, don’t keep expensive equipment on the first floor and move elevators up. Also, take an inventory of everything in the college’s buildings, even if it’s just photos or video recordings. Trying to recreate what was lost after a storm has destroyed property is almost impossible.

Also, empty refrigerators. Graham said the smell from food-filled refrigerators when the college reopened 17 days after Hurricane Katrina, especially at student dorms, is something she won’t forget.

Another tip: review your insurance, especially deductibles. You may think you have comprehensive coverage, but you might be surprised what is and what isn’t covered, Head said.

During emergencies, especially storms, don’t assume technology will work. Cell towers can flood and texting services can be overwhelmed, so it’s important to have a backup plan or two, Head said. Lone Star and MGCCC spend a lot of time on their emergency communications both internally and with local law enforcement.

Contract ahead of time

Lone Star makes sure to pre-qualify contractors to handle remediation, electrical, HVAC and other repairs before an expected event, Head said. When a storm hits, the process allows colleges to immediately begin clean up instead of beginning the paperwork. MGCCC also meets with its disaster contractors regularly so they’re familiar with the college and its 10 locations.

“We want to make sure we’re the priority” when contractors begin their work, Graham said.

Head also recommends pre-contracting with consultants to work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is very bureaucratic. It wasn’t cheap to hire a company, but it was worth it to help the college navigate through FEMA’s read tape. Also, that cost is an eligible expense for which FEMA will reimburse the college.

Graham also shared stories of FEMA’s infamous bureaucracy. When Hurricane Katrina came through in 2005, the agency was replacing its local FEMA team almost weekly, which meant that the college had to re-introduce itself and its issues regularly. In fact, the college just six months ago finally settled with FEMA over Katrina damages.

Lone Star also made a decision to pay all employees, even part-timers, during catastrophes. Before Harvey hit, the college paid its payroll in advance.

“I don’t want people to worry about things that are out of their control,” Head said. “That’s part of our culture. We take care of our people.”

Sometimes a college may not realize the limits of a partnership during a crisis. Lone Star teamed with the Red Cross to serve as a shelter, but the organization has a process that delayed working with the college when the hurricane came through. Lone Star had to pay for cots and other items for people seeking shelter, which it didn’t expect to do.

How’s your plan?

Most colleges have emergency preparedness plans, and they probably run through it occasionally, said Graham. But how often do they do that? And how often is the plan updated, and those updates shared with the right team members? Graham also noted a review is important especially when there have been staff changes. A task may fall to the wayside upon someone’s departure, she said.

Graham’s team also runs impromptu drills among its members. For example, she will send a 911 message to them and they reply promptly — even if they are in the doctor’s office.

Another tip: Pick a location to meet after a disaster — and make sure it’s not on your campus, which may be closed.

The team at Lone Star College-Kingwood, which was especially hit hard by the hurricane in August, held meetings at a local church and even in the kitchen of one of the deans, said LCS-Kingwood President Katherine Persson.

Thank you, but….

Graham also had suggestions for other colleges and organizations that want to help after a disaster: gift cards to home builders and other stores are the best option. Although colleges appreciate when helping hands arrive, those groups often don’t realize that institutions have limitations during emergencies, which often include food and shelter.

“That is the most practical approach,” she said.

Donated clothes and other items also can present issues. MGCCC had several truckloads of used clothes and other items show up. Although the college appreciated the gesture, it didn’t have a place to store them or to disburse them — and often the clothes were a bit too worn.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily.