By Stephanie WilcoxAlthough the threat of Hurricane Dean has dissipated, it presented the University of Houston-Clear Lake an opportunity to execute hurricane preparedness plans; moreover, a chance to ensure that the students and staff would be spared the wide spread devastation that others endured nearly two years ago with Hurricane Rita.
"The key issue for university administrators is making the decision in a timely manner to ensure students and employees are able to make individual preparations for their own safety as well as to allow time for the various individuals who play a role in responding to these types of incidents to be able to implement their part of the plan--such as backing up and securing database information, moving outdoor furniture inside, etc.," said Theresa Presswood, director of communications.
Due to the complexities of hurricanes and the myriad of different outcomes from hurricanes, time frames for evacuations can vary.
"Ideally, the decision to close the university is made 72 hours before a hurricane hits the Texas coastline; however, there are many factors to take into consideration when making that decision," Presswood said.
"There is a general UHCL emergency plan and basically it is very, very general," said Darlene Biggers, associate vice president for student services. "It says that the president or designee is responsible for making the decision to close the university, or not, during any kind of emergency and that each department is responsible for writing up their own procedures and policies, so there are some university-wide guidelines."
Remembering the scenes that played out with the evacuation of Hurricane Rita, Biggers became teary eyed as she remembered the procession of busses leaving the university with the international students on board. She could not help but worry that someone might have been left behind; her ultimate fear was arriving back at the university to discover the bodies of trapped students.
That fear, coupled with the lack of preparedness, prompted the initiative to create evacuation plans for international students. During the past couple of years Biggers has actively engaged her division in the process of writing procedures and policies for hurricane preparedness.
Students' role in preparedness
All students are advised to make individual hurricane preparedness plans; the campus police Web site offers links to guide students through the process.
"Ultimately, each of us have to be responsible for ourselves and our family and so students for the most part do need to be responsible for themselves and to develop their own hurricane or other crisis response plans in their family," Biggers said.
"It is possible that with the e-mails, Web site, the phone calls, the PIER system [Public Information and Emergency Response System] and the text messaging, we are still going to miss someone ... it is imperative that students make sure that their information is up-to-date in PeopleSoft," said Anthony Jenkins, dean of Student Services.
"PIER System is a communication management Web application that allows you access information on an external server hosted outside of the university's firewall," said Dan Timmins, southeast regional vice president for PIER System.
Jenkins recommends that students continually update their contact information because the university's communication system is only as good as the information provided by the students.
Announcements regarding UHCL's status during inclement weather are posted on the university's homepage, www.uhcl.edu, and hotline, (281) 283-2221.
Not wanting to be caught off guard again, the department of Intercultural and International Students Services worked with Biggers to devise a plan for future evacuations.
"To my understanding, the university did not have evacuation plans for students before Hurricane Rita," said Sameer Pande, assistant director for Intercultural and International Student Services.
"I think we have a system now and [Hurricane Dean] was a good test run because last time it was chaotic ... this time it was a lot smoother," Pande said.
In fact, Linda Contreras Bullock, assistant dean for student diversity, said that they had less than 24 hours to evacuate for Hurricane Rita.
Now all international students are given an information packet at the beginning of the semester advising them on how to prepare in the event a hurricane enters the Gulf of Mexico.
The information in the11-page packet ranges from hurricane definitions to what to bring when you evacuate.
Pande said nearly 200 students signed up for evacuation transportation with almost all the students residing in the University Forest Apartments or international students without transportation.
International students are currently notified of hurricane conditions as soon as they become available through flyers placed around campus, word-of-mouth and through the university's e-mail system.
Overall Pande felt that his department was prepared and moving in the right direction.
"Yes, there are some kinks that need to be worked out," Pande said. "I think that there are some improvements we need to do, but that's like that with any other process."
Surprisingly, the evacuation of international students for Hurricane Rita was carried out by a handful of UHCL's faculty. After the school closed the only remaining faculty left with the daunting task and personal responsibility were Pande, Bullock, Biggers and Andrew Reitberger, assistant director of student life.
After the busses departed the campus, Pande followed behind the bus in his car with his family including his wife, sister-in-law and her two children, and their dog. But before he could arrive at his destination he had to rescue a couple of students who were stranded on the side of the I-45.
"I just didn't feel I could leave with the feeling that hey listen, I just left two students on the side of the highway," Pande said.
As flashbacks of Hurricane Rita's evacuation filled Pande's mind he said, "Personally though, I hope to never have to evacuate again."
Communication in a time of crisis
In the event of a crisis, students are advised to call the information hotline or the campus police department, to receive updates on university closings; however, what happens if the phone lines are down?
During a weather-related crisis, servers that have all the student's information can crash and, since time is of the essence, that is where the PIER System picks up.
With the implementation of the PIER System on campus students can be notified by text messaging.
"The University of Houston-Central Campus has been using the PIER System for over a year now," Timmons said.
The system can be leased monthly or bought by licenses. Currently UH has purchased five licenses.
Timmons said, UH has agreed to let UHCL utilize one of those licenses. Because of this agreement, UHCL will avoid paying the going rate of $10,000 a year for a single-site contract and will pay less than $4,000 a year, says Presswood.
The cost for the PIER system will be shared by the department of communications, police department and student services, according to Jean Carr, executive director, budget.
Since the cost is relatively low in comparison to university enrollment, Biggers anticipates that students will not see a rise in tuition cost.
Presswood confirmed that UHCL has made the commitment to use the PIER system; phase I out of III has a projected date of completion set for the beginning of October; phase II and III dates of completion have yet to be determined.
"Phase I goals include setting up the initial structure to provide a mechanism for emergency communication with students, faculty and staff as well as an off-campus Web site for crisis team communication; coordinating the initial introduction and training for the UHCL Crisis Team; and developing a communication plan targeted to faculty, staff and students to promote awareness and use of UHCL's PIER Center as a resource for emergency information," Presswood said. "Although various systems were considered, Audience Central's PIER System offered the most integrated solution with the additional benefit of not only providing a mechanism to communicate with key audiences in a variety of formats, but also providing an online command center for the university's crisis team to address issues.