Katrina: What Can We Do to Help; This Time and the Next?

Well, this year it’s not digital viruses hitting higher ed hard, it’s a hurricane – right as the students returned or were about to. It’s nightmarish to imagine your server room under 30 feet of water; or with its interior exposed to wind and rain because a large tree fell on it. What IT staffers and others are experiencing at Tulane University and other places can only be imagined right now. But we’ll be hearing more, for sure.

It’s time for higher education IT folks to come up with a plan for an always-on Internet-based resource for assistance to institutions that have met with disasters. Nearly four years ago, immediately after 9/11, my employer, the Society for College and University Planning, had some success with an email list that connected lots of people on many campuses, including some on the affected campuses in New York City.

We know for sure that lots of folks connected through the “SCUP-EMP” (Emergency Management Planning) list and that the hardest-hit school, Manhattan Borough Community College was able to find extra tables, chairs, and even portable classrooms through the connections that staffers there made through the list.

We’ve just kicked off a “SCUP-KATRINA” list and expect that it will be a big help to at least some people, because there are far more institutions directly affected this time than before. Find out how to join that temporary email list. And especially if you have colleagues at the affected institutions, please let them know about it!

Tulane University is basically running a blog as its home page; or at least it was as of Wednesday morning, Here’s how its situation is described in terms of priorities:

  1. “Our first priority during this time is the safety of our faculty, staff and students. Thankfully, everyone associated with the university is safe, including those of us who remain at Tulane.
  2. Our second priority is to secure our facilities. As expected, our facilities have been damaged; however, based on our preliminary assessments, the majority of the damage can be remediated in a reasonable period of time. The uptown campus is covered with debris from fallen trees and shrubs, making it almost impossible to drive or even walk on campus. We have no power in any of the buildings other than a few where we control the power source.
  3. Our third priority is to develop a recovery plan. This task is impaired right now by the devastation of the city and its infrastructure, and deteriorating further due to the flooding we are now facing. In addition, we don’t know when our employees will be able to return to the city, much less to the university. Therefore, until conditions stabilize, it is impossible to do any longer term recovery planning. However, part of the responsibility of the senior leadership team in Jackson, MS is to begin the planning and they have done so.”

As I write this I cannot even get a web page for the University of Mississippi, Hattiesburg or for New Orleans University, or for Southeastern Luousiana University. From Louisiana State University we hear of that institution’s resources all tied up with providing emergency services to more affected areas.

Can you just imagine these scenarios on your own campus? Wouldn’t you like to know that if you can find Internet access you can also find a community of people from other campuses--all disciplines and departments--ready to lend advice, or maybe even equipment or labor?

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has a Disaster Resistant Universities program, where you can download a how-to guide that collects the experiences of six universities as they dealt with disasters. But there is no live interaction available there.

Looking at another resource, let us hope that the IT staffers along the Gulf Coast followed these steps, or something like them, in preparation for Katrina.

The SCUP-Katrina list is a start and I bet it will prove to be useful to connect expertise and resources to affected institutions. But it’s the same technology we used four years ago! We need more and better. Think floods, earthquakes, tornad'es, hurricanes, terrorist attacks. It’s truly amazing that a Lyris-based email discussion list (Thanks, University of Michigan!) is the best we can do in 2005, and implemented after-the-fact.

We need a constantly-on higher education disaster communications center with links to knowledge resources, agencies and other institutions that can help, and an active subscriber base using email and postings to share needs and available assistance. The folks in IT are the people with the expertise and resources to build it.

Who’s going to?

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