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In Gustav's Wake, Disaster Plans Are Tested

September 3, 2008

If Louisiana college leaders learned any lessons from Hurricane Katrina, the need to create remote command centers was surely among them.

As Hurricane Gustav approached the state last week, several Louisiana colleges initiated disaster plans that sent teams of high-level administrators to other parts of the country. Safely removed from the storm’s path, college leaders concentrated on keeping evacuating students and their families informed through Web sites, text messages and mass e-mail communiqués. They also prepared for the possibility that classes might need be conducted online for days or even weeks, depending on the damages to campus facilities.

Colleges across the state were not reporting widespread damage Tuesday, but they were touting the effectiveness of disaster plans that have been refined since Katrina struck in 2005.

Scott Cowen, president of Tulane University, has spent the last several days in the Loews Vanderbilt Hotel in Nashville, Tenn. Well in advance of the storm, Tulane declared this to be the command site for a group of about 50 campus leaders in the event of a hurricane.

“You never wish for a disaster so you can test your systems, but given how we tested them we all feel very comfortable about how this system works,” said Cowen, who plans to return to New Orleans Thursday.

Tulane, which sustained damages during Katrina, was largely spared from Gustav. The campus, which was closed last Friday, is expected to re-open on Saturday with classes starting back on Monday.

University Leaders Become 'First Responders'

Late Tuesday afternoon, Stephen Hulbert was accompanied by a National Guard convoy as he drove back to the campus of Nicholls State University, where Hulbert is president. The campus in Thibodaux, La., is more than 300 miles from the University of Louisiana at Monroe, where Hulbert and a group of staff spent several days running university operations out of the path of the storm.

Along with his key staff members, Hulbert was granted the status of “first responder” by local government authorities, allowing him to return to Lafourche Parish before other residents were permitted to do so. With no electricity in the parish, local officials are trying to limit access to the area, but Hulbert and his staff wanted to be able to return to campus as quickly as possible to assess and address any damages.

The university’s campus is located about 20 miles from where Gustav made landfall Monday morning. Hulbert said the campus may be without power for some time to come, but the structural damage is limited. The storm damaged the roofs of two buildings, blew out several windows and knocked out lighting at outdoor athletic facilities.

“Unfortunately, we took a dead on hit from the storm,” he said. “But because it was a less intense storm at the time it passed, we didn’t suffer the total building and facility damage that we could have.”

The earliest the campus might re-open is Monday, according to Hulbert.

The power outages in Louisiana have created uncertainty for several campuses. At Dillard University, for instance, the loss of power has left previously established plans in flux. The university, based in New Orleans, had anticipated re-opening today (Wednesday), but is now aiming to resume classes Monday, according to its web site.

Colleges Use Distance Learning During Storm

A number of colleges in Louisiana -- including Tulane, Loyola University, Nicholls State and Dillard -- cited the use of distance learning technologies as one method by which they're hoping to avoid the disruption of curriculum delivery by Gustav or future storms.

Edward Kvet, provost of Loyola University in New Orleans, said he had every expectation that students would continue to participate in classes online, even though the campus closed last Thursday and classes won’t resume until Monday. Like several other universities in Louisiana, Loyola uses technology provided by Blackboard, which allows students to access course materials and upload assignments online.

“Technically, we do not shut [down] the university” said Kvet, who has been with an off-site administrative team near Dallas for several days.

Loyola officials, however, had some concern that Web-based systems might be overloaded by a flurry of activity during the storm, and Kvet says they plan to assess in the coming weeks whether there were any problems.

“One of the things we will do, just as a matter of course, is when we do get back we will convene and just kind of do an evaluation,” he said.

The steps Loyola and others have taken since Katrina struck in 2005 reflect a new mindset among college officials, according to the Rev. Kevin Wildes, president of Loyola. There is a premium now on planning for the potential long haul that universities may endure if a storm causes major damage to facilities and infrastructure.

“What we never imagined in our planning [before Katrina] was any sort of prolonged absence from the city,” Father Wildes said.

Moreover, Father Wildes concedes that he never imagined that as a university president he’d spend as much time planning for disasters as he does now. From terrorist attacks to natural disasters to campus shootings, university presidents at institutions large and small are increasingly occupied by planning for worst case scenarios, he said.

“This was not on my forefront when I began this job,” Father Wildes said. “But I don’t care if you [are] running a university in the middle of literally nowhere, you have to think about all this now.”

 

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