Universities Navigating Natural Disasters: Advice from Lamar University and the Rebuild Texas Program

Cover of the University Press, Lamar University’s student newspaper, days after Tropical Storm Imelda hit Beaumont, TX. View issue.

As the world witnesses more and more severe weather patterns, higher education leaders and administrators need to be prepared to handle climate events that impact their campuses. The impact of complex emergencies on higher education institutions isn’t the first thing that is covered in the news but understanding their implications for this sector is vital to higher education administrators. Texas has been the epicenter of some of the most extreme storms in recent years.

The Texas International Education Consortium serves to bring Texas experiences and expertise to counterparts and peers around the world. In this vein, TIEC caught up with two Texas-based experts who offer different vantage points and perspectives on university disaster preparedness.

President Ken Evans, chair of TIEC’s board of directors, has presided over Lamar University through two immense storms over the past two years, and shares his advice for planning and responding to storms to ensure students don’t miss out on vital instructional hours, that universities don’t lose students and, above all, that all students and faculty are prepared and kept safe and accounted for. Chris Hensman, Rebuild Texas Program Officer at the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, shares best practices regarding hurricane response, and programs the Dell Foundation has sponsored for the higher education sector in response to Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Kenneth R. Evans, PH.D., President, Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas

Q: Describe the hurricanes that have impacted Lamar University since you have been president. What was the most traumatic aspect of these storms?

 One hurricane (Harvey) and one major tropical storm event (Imelda) have directly impacted LU during my presidency.  Harvey occurred the opening weekend of the fall 2017 semester just after we had moved the majority of students into the residence halls.  Both the amount of rainfall over a three day period, and the commercial and residential destruction our region saw were at record-breaking levels. While having to address the needs of the 1,800 students housed in our residence halls with no way out of Beaumont and no potable water, our basketball arena served as a shelter for approximately 500 individuals who had been evacuated from their homes. It is important to add that all of the demands that became apparent during this time, as well as the facility damage we incurred, had to be addressed by our staff, many of whom had lost their homes due to the flooding.

More recently was Tropical Storm Imelda.  While not a hurricane, it created a rain event that, in some ways, challenged our community greater than Harvey.  The flooding immediately surrounding Lamar and throughout Beaumont was significant, so much so that we have been declared a disaster area by the federal government.  Strange as this may seem, the cost of the damages to campus as a result of Imelda will outnumber that of Harvey.

Lastly, I will stress this point: These events are always about the people impacted rather than the damage to facilities.  Whether it is the 100 + year old woman whom we housed in our basketball complex or the students who lost all of their books and laptops because they were on the floor of their first-floor apartment, our primary focus is finding solutions for them during events such as these.

Q: What did you worry most about with regards to your students and faculty?

Once you get past the safety of all involved, the next most important issue is ensuring students remain engaged and progressing toward their respective degrees.  For many students who are first-generation and often working at least one part-time job, the disruption of an event such as these two major weather patterns (particularly so close together) can easily result in a decision to either quit school or put their education on hold.  What we know about decisions to discontinue among this student population is, unfortunately, they frequently simply never finish their degree. The tragedy of this is that they could have been change agents, the role models for future generations of their family to seek and complete a college education.

For faculty, maintaining their full teaching load and helping them to support the students who look to them for guidance during these difficult times is essential for student success. That said, the faculty and their well-being is tantamount to the university’s success. That means providing our faculty access to funding for extra household expenses and, where possible, giving them flexible time to remediate the consequences of these weather disasters in their own lives.

Q: What kind of preparation has the university done to face these events?  Was your preparation effective?

You always need to be prepared for the possibility of a major weather event when living on the Gulf Coast.  Early in my tenure, I dealt with the Government Accountability Office closure of the books for Hurricane Rita in 2005. I became very familiar with the almost 20 three-ring binders full of purchase orders necessary to document the costs of that formidable storm.

We have just done the same process with Ike This university had good – but not sufficiently comprehensive – protocols for addressing disaster events. That was then, but we do now.

Once it was clear Harvey was not leaving our area unscathed, our team was already assembled and looking at all the elements that needed to be addressed, whether it be residence halls, other university facilities, Red Cross interface, student retention, information dissemination, and much more were already up and running.

We run drills periodically throughout the year to assure everyone knows their respective roles and that we have the proper assemblage of individuals at the table. Once we are in disaster mode, daily meetings are held at 8:00 a.m., 12:00 p.m. and around 6:00 p.m. until the crisis begins to abate. During this time, each member of the team provides an update on their respective area and any additional issues that may have surfaced since the last meeting and, where necessary, those assigned to a responsible party to be addressed. There were lessons learned during Harvey which were not repeated during Imelda. Most of the lessons had to do with communication content and frequency.

Q: What was most on your mind during Hurricane Harvey? During Tropical Storm Imelda? What guided you?

 I have to admit I had never been in a water event remotely approaching Harvey.  I had seen flooding on the Missouri River and participated in sandbagging to help save vintage homes in some of the river communities, but the Harvey-levels of rainfall and subsequent flooding was well beyond anything I could have imagined. My first priority was the safety of the students who were on campus and off, faculty and staff. Further, since so much of what initially had to be done required staff getting to campus and deployed throughout the various buildings and grounds, I was concerned for their well-being. To some extent, this concern about safety did not abate for quite some time because we were also without potable water. Then we lost water entirely, so hygiene and sanitation were also on the list.

What guided me then is what guides me now:  well-reasoned action that is timely, compassionate and instrumental. Unfortunately, at no point is one able to achieve optimal performance on all these dimensions. Tradeoffs are a reality when dealing with a crisis and one needs to accept this is an inevitable part of engagement when these events occur.

Q: How should university leaders prepare for weather events like you have seen and what advice do you have for your counterparts around the world?  

What is the best way to prepare and respond? Someone on campus needs to be responsible for environmental health and safety, and risk management. While this does not need to be a separate position, these functions need to be performed and on a regular basis. Various risk, safety, and health exposures change and as such, require monitoring. By way of illustration, an increase in the number of facilities on campus increases watershed and thereby, the possible amount of water accumulation on campus. This is particularly salient in an environment such as ours, making it necessary to adjust for proper escape routes and optimal areas of ingress and egress. I cannot underscore the need for periodic drills to assure the entire community knows its roles and stands ready to respond in the event of an incident.

Q: International students don’t have community and local safety nets the way many of the other population has.  What do you recommend specifically for helping international students during weather events like Harvey and Imelda?

This is a good question and one that has occupied more of my time with Imelda than Harvey.  Since flooding in our immediate vicinity did not create much of a problem for our international students during Harvey, I (we) did not confront some of the major hazards these students experience.  The vast majority of our international students live in apartments off-campus and not in our residence halls. Unfortunately during Imelda, the first-floor apartments around campus experienced quite a bit of flooding.  We were not in evacuation mode, so local solutions needed to be found.

We have raised special funds for many of (our international) these students and offered alternative housing until their residences are repaired. The key is having a number of individuals in the international community who serve as crisis communication liaisons. International students, and similarly, domestic students tend not to read official university communications with regularity but will pay attention to classmates. As with any communication strategy, the key is finding the conduit that is most likely to reach the audience of interest. The other part of this strategy is to keep the communication channels open so we know what their evolving needs might be to assure a meaningful and timely response to the challenges they are confronting.

Chris Hensman, Program Officer, Rebuild Texas Program, The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, Houston, Texas

Q: What do you see as the greatest threat to our university student populations when storms like Harvey and Dorian hit?

The greatest threats to any student are uncertainty and instability. It shifts focus away from their work and onto the other challenges in front of them. Many students have a hierarchy of needs. When they are confident those will be met, they can focus on their studies. If housing, transportation, health, or food are at risk, then a student’s attention can be split, or worse, it can cause interruptions.

Q: How can donors and government agencies help? In advance, during, and after?

Before: Ahead of a storm or even storm season, preparedness and resilience programs are critical. This can be as simple as ensuring good disaster planning, an information campaign, and offering regular community trainings. San Jacinto College used Rebuild Texas Fund grant dollars to create a preparedness program for its students which guided them through what to do in a disaster and how to create an emergency kit. Colleges and universities should also do their homework ahead of time to understand their vulnerabilities. This could be mapping out where students live to understand how many could be impacted by a flood or wildfires. This process can also identify safe space on campus that could be used for shelters or high ground for parking to protect student or staff vehicles. Last, it is important to develop relationships with local emergency management and community organizations ahead of disasters to improve communication.

 During: First and foremost, focus on communication. Information is critical to keeping people safe. This may be passing on information from local authorities or notifying your students and staff of your own community-specific shelters and resources. The main focus here should be on the protection of people and property. For most, this means heeding evacuation orders or effectively sheltering in place.

 After: Recovery from large disasters takes a long time, but the first moments are critical. An important tool to deploy immediately are flexible stabilization funds. To ensure students stay in school, flexible funding needs to help meet their most pressing needs including school materials, vehicle repairs or replacement, replacement of lost wages, or help with medical expenses. In most of our programs, the grants needed were in the $500-$3,000 range and were entirely donor-supported. Even before funds are raised, it may be in a school’s best interest to advance this money to improve student retention.

(Schools) should also consider opening support to vulnerable staff. The first few days and weeks are hard, though students or staff who aren’t stabilized during this time often face compounding challenges the longer they do not receive assistance. Beyond financial assistance, mental health is also critical to student success. Some students may show signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and should receive direct support from a licensed therapist or other mental health provider to help them recover. Many more students may show non-clinical levels of trauma and may benefit from mental health support. These students may exhibit decreased concentration in their studies, increased behavioral incidents, and increased absenteeism.

 Q: What are some best practices for educational administrators in preparing for and responding to severe weather events?

Forge strong relationships. Your local emergency management offices and community organizations will be your best allies and partners in preparedness, response, and recovery. It’s always better to know these players before an emergency and to know what each player can offer in the response.

Conduct a vulnerability audit to understand the risks to your personnel, students, physical plan, and other critical community resources. This should include on- and off-campus risks from vulnerable housing to transportation risks like limited routes to campus or the potential for damaged vehicles to hamper staff and students from returning to campus.

Make preparedness a regular part of your routine. This can be as simple as ensuring every instructor notifies students of emergency plans at the beginning of each semester or as complicated as holding drills and trainings every semester. FEMA has great resources to help you plan here: https://training.fema.gov/hiedu/cemr.aspx.

Invest in setting up tools ahead of time. While it’s hard to know what disaster will hit or it’s scale, having tools in place before you need them can save valuable time, money, and stress. A solid plan on paper to offer stabilization funds for students and staff before a storm can then be activated quickly to aid recovery. This includes the ability to raise funds earmarked for recovery.

Q: How can higher education leaders around the world best prepare?

The best thing any leader can do to prepare their community is to plan, practice, and inform. To accomplish this, we also need to share information through fora like this one and take time to gather within our communities to discuss potential threats and to also share our successes and failures with other communities.