Is Campus IT Ready for Rita?

For some reason I cannot get the Beatles song, Lovely Rita Meter Maid, out of my head this week: “Lovely Rita meter maid. Nothing can come between . . .” - between Rita and Galveston, is what it’s looking like. (Now you can blame me for getting into your head, while you ponder the possibility that Rita and her ilk have come to collect the payment due for the sloppy way that humans have been parking on mother Earth.)

Even as everyone engaged by Katrina is still, slowly, realizing the dramatic complexity of the circumstances from that storm, yet another handful of higher education institutions are preparing for a major hit. And the folks in the Galveston area are taking this seriously. After all, the hurricane there in 1900 is still considered the largest hurricane disaster in United States history, with 8,000 dead. Will some of the lessons recently learned be put into play? Can some of the aid mechanisms already in place be shifted to assist Texas schools?

Before I go off into Rita stuff, you might want to check out this nifty map at The Chronicle of Higher Education. When you roll over a ‘dot’ that represents a campus, a nice compilation of damages appears.

One thing’s for sure, there has been little advance planning help from FEMA. As recently as the summer of 2002, FEMA was doing some pretty exciting preliminary stuff with its Disaster Resistant Universities program: find a full report on that here, a report which was rolled out to the public at SCUP’s annual conference in San Diego in 2002. But 2003 was the last year FEMA had any financial support specifically for higher education institutions.

And, frankly, the Congress has also been pretty stingy even in the past few weeks with Katrina funds for higher education institutions, although it’s paying pretty careful attention to the financial needs of displaced students.

The University of Texas Medical Branch received $97,500 from FEMA in 2003 for disaster planning. I don’t know if that was directly responsible, but if you look at UTMB’s “Alert” page, there’s clearly been some planning done there. Many do not know it, but the Gulf Coast of Texas is a long series of barrier islands with too many people on them. Here’s how UTMB explains that on its “Preparing for Hurricanes” page: “UTMB is not a shelter, and there are no shelters on Galveston Island. When a call comes to evacuate, the university will not be able to shelter anyone, and staff other than E1 personnel are encouraged to make their own plans for evacuation well in advance.” (E1 personnel are designated staff needed to take primary roles in a hurricane disaster.)

The Institutional Emergency Operations Plan at UTMB is quite comprehensive and was last updated in June of this year. I suspect they’ll come out of this fine, despite the added complications of being a major health and science center, with the presence of patients, chemicals, and diseases to be worried about.

But it’s not just Galveston that’s affected by Rita, there are other Texas towns on the coast – like Corpus Christi, with its Texas A&M branch campus there, and even Houston institutions, although they’re inland, are going to feel this one.

However, it’s not likely that a repeat of the slow onset of hugely widespread flooding will occur in Texas, because the geography d'es not match that in the New Orleans area. Barring unforeseen circumstances, the Texas institutions will prepare, evacuate, and then be able to return and be functioning fairly soon. If any have to close for an entire semester, like all of those in the New Orleans area have, it will be a real surprise.

At Texas A&M Corpus Christi, the “Island University,” classes are cancelled after Wednesday, but with the expectation that they will resume on Monday. All students are to be off the island by 10 am Thursday. All the Texas institutions seem to have already made plans for their websites to be mirrored in safer places and have staff moved into place to maintain their sites in the event of things getting really bad.

IT-wise, the wonderful Hurricane Relief Community Exchange that EDUCAUSE created post-Katrina is already in place for Rita victims, and it offers a lot of thoughtful interactivity and resources. I hope the administrators at the Texas institutions are aware of it; likewise the website.

Something else for those affected by Katrina and Rita to bear in mind is the generous work being done by ACUTA, the Association for Communications Technology Professionals in Higher Education. In addition to offering yet another clearinghouse for those wishing to offer or ask for assistance, ACUTA is forming volunteer teams of communications and networking infrastructure professionals to go to affected schools and assist with everything from damage assessment to physical repair.

And, of course, don’t overlook Campus Technology’s set of useful resources and links.

Between Ivan in Florida last year, Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi, and now Rita in Texas, you’d think that we’re learning enough lessons to last a lifetime. One thing’s certain: If, in four years, we haven’t learned and put a lot more of the lessons into practice, more than we learned and put into practice after 9/11, it’ll be a disgrace.

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