When the College Responds to a Crisis: Hurricane Season and Preparing for the Next Disaster

Written with Dennis Cariello.

As the U.S. prepares for another hurricane later this week and as residents of Houston begin the long process of recovery, colleges and universities have found themselves in a most difficult situation.  While managing the hurricane’s effects on campus and attempting to account for all of the students affected, college administrators are working diligently to serve their communities, on and off campus, the best they can through this crisis.

During the storm in Texas, Rice University, Texas Southern University, the University of Houston, the Galveston and Houston Community Colleges, and many other institutions closed.  Some, like UH, continued running on a limited basis, keeping some dorms and dining halls open for the stranded students.  Their work, in many ways, was just beginning.  With this work in mind, the U.S. Department of Education has set up a hotline and email address for school leaders needing information or temporary relief regarding Department-based administrative requirements.

For those outside Houston and other affected areas, the storms and flooding are reminders that preparing your institution for a catastrophic event, of severe weather or otherwise, can be critical to successfully navigating through a crisis.  To that end, the U.S. Department of Education has a number of resources available for colleges to guide them through planning for the unthinkable and HMBR is uniquely situated to help your institution write a crisis management policy or revise your current policy. Here is a brief list of some Departmental resources:

  • Ready Campus – An array of links to resources for planning, preparedness, response, and training. A great place to start when rethinking your disaster plan.
  • Practical Information on Crisis Planning Brochure — From the U.S. Department of Education, the link is a thorough guide to developing, reviewing, and updating a school’s crisis plan that provides advice through the process and examples of best practices.
  • Guide for Developing High-Quality Emergency Operations Plans for Institutions of Higher Education – Similar to Item #2 on this list, but specifically geared towards higher education institutions. Also contains information on key topics of interest to colleges such as Clery Act and FERPA compliance, campus law enforcement, and campus climate studies.
  • Federal Student Aid Natural Disaster Information – Link from the Federal Student Aid office containing information for students, borrowers, and schools who have been impacted by a major natural disaster. Also includes link to contact information for departmental resources.
  • Dear Colleague Letter from August 23, 2010 – Letter provides information regarding the impact of disasters on Title IV student assistance programs and provides regulatory relief to students, institutions, lenders, guaranty agencies, and servicers in administering federal student financial aid programs authorized under Title IV. See this document for additional info on disasters and Title IV programs.

Finally, here are a few concerns that HMBR thinks are important for college administrations to consider, and that the Department of Education may want to discuss, when facing a natural disaster:

  • If you decide to close your institution, consider how long you will remain closed and have a plan in place to re-open as efficiently as possible to hit the ground running;
  • Determine the effects of the potential closing on your academic year as well as how, and when, you expect to make up for the lost time;
  • Consider how the potential closing will affect your ability to report any data to the Department of Education;
  • Consider how the closing will impact your financial aid disbursement schedule and the effects that could have on your student population, including whether your will need to use your professional judgment to zero out Expected Family Contributions (EFCs) for more students;
  • Consider whether the closure affects any school or program deadlines.