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AdvanceWork: Windblown

Campuses survive hurricanes by communicating early and often

By Mary Ellen Collins




Summer 2004 was like no other in recent memory for the communications professionals at Florida's numerous colleges and universities. A record four hurricanes ravaged the state over a two-month period, challenging campus communicators to implement their emergency communications plans and keep those plans on track no matter what Mother Nature threw their way.

Those who managed to keep their constituents informed despite storms in this and past years say they were successful because they followed these best practices:

They planned ahead. Rollins College's emergency plan includes time frames for message dissemination as well as sample text for e-mail, Web, and telephone communications. Ann Marie Varga, assistant vice president of public relations, says she also maintains an "emergency box" that includes an air mattress, rain gear, flashlight, spare clothing, official campus news release letterhead, and media inquiry sheets. The box is stored in the basement of the building that houses the Rollins emergency communications office.

They centralized communications. The Barry University system serves nearly 9,000 students in 16 Florida cities, so streamlined communications through a single conduit are essential, says Mike Laderman, assistant vice president for university relations. Although administrators at each campus made their own closing and evacuation decisions based on local emergency directives, they communicated the information to Laderman, who posted it to the university's Web site. He also communicated local initiatives via telephone hotline and in press releases.

They enlisted everyone's help. When Hurricane Charley knocked out Rollins College's Internet connection shortly before the school year began, 64 peer mentors already on campus called 1,700 new and returning students to inform them that classes would begin a week later.

They had backup supplies on hand. Brian Eckert, director of media and public relations for the University of Richmond, recommends equipping a campus storm headquarters with a generator, laptop, printer, photocopier, toner, and paper to support makeshift communications. When Hurricane Isabel knocked out electricity in the area, forcing the university to close but not evacuate in September 2003, his staff hand-delivered fliers to dormitories, alerting students about water usage issues and the time and location of public, on-campus storm briefings.

They monitored travel. Rollins College responded to a required evacuation by developing Student Storm Tracker, a Web-based database through which students who chose to leave campus rather than go to the campus shelter could enter their off-campus destination information and a contact phone number. Eckert also advises making evacuation announcements early in the day so travelers can avoid the danger of night travel during power outages.

They kept parents informed. In addition to providing a telephone number and Web site through which parents could access emergency plan updates, the University of Richmond facilitated calls home by distributing free phone cards to students the day after storms.

Campus communicators agree that having a comprehensive plan in place and an orderly chain of command led to success in keeping their lines of communication open. When thinking about the next time, Varga notes that sometimes the simplest things are the most important. "Believe it or not, you have to remind people that if the power goes out, the cordless phones won't work."

About the Author Mary Ellen Collins

Mary Ellen Collins is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg, Fla. Her work has appeared in Advancing Philanthropy, The Christian Science Monitor, The Arizona Republic, Angie's List Magazine, and Notre Dame Magazine.

 

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