The 2005-06 school year brought reminders that you can never be too prepared for campus catastrophes. A tornado struck just blocks from the University of Iowa campus, destroying or damaging property of UI students, faculty, and staff, as well as community members. The threat of a flu pandemic captured the international headlines, sparking concerns about a campuswide flu crisis. And peer institutions in the Gulf Coast region grappled with rebuilding following a devastating hurricane season.
While considerable measures are taken to revent such campus emergencies, University of Iowa officials constantly work behind the scenes to make sure the University is ready for the unexpected.
“Some things are very difficult to plan for,” says Chuck Green, director of the UI Department of Public Safety. “But it’s still important to think about these things in advance. Preparation identifies what should happen during an emergency, who’s responsible for what, and what other agencies need to be involved.”
Planning for the worst
Last April’s tornado tested the University’s Critical Incident Management Plan, a document that serves as a blueprint for handling situations from civil protests to severe weather.
Green says the plan performed exactly as it should the night of the tornado and in the days following the storm. That night, information about the extent of damage on campus was quickly relayed to Public Safety headquarters so that resources could be redirected to the greater Iowa City area. Meanwhile, top UI officials surveyed damage in the surrounding neighborhoods, making a quick call to cancel classes the following day. Many other offices across campus did their part by helping displaced students find shelter and supplies, manage stress, and handle class work.
For Leslie Jensen and her Alpha Chi Omega sorority sisters, the tornado that destroyed their house was the second blow of the semester. Still grappling with the death of a member that spring, the women were now also faced with finishing a semester without many of their personal belongings, including class notes and books. But faculty, staff, and students pulled together to make things easier, says Jensen, the house president. For example, she says, the provost’s office helped the students work out arrangements with professors to make up class work or complete courses over the summer.
“Various people took care of everything so we as a chapter were able to worry about getting our things together and trying to get back to a sense of normalcy,” says Jensen, a senior journalism and English major from Waterloo, Iowa.
The University has also turned its attention recently to the potential for a flu pandemic. A task force formed last winter is charged with examining the University’s preparedness in the event of a mass flu outbreak. In June, the group issued a detailed response plan identifying how the University would function in the case of an influenza crisis. And another group recently met to review and fine-tune the disaster plan for Kinnick Stadium, partly due to recent building renovations.
“We’re constantly looking at the best practices out there, often borrowing better ideas from our peers,” says Green.
Even as University officials are thinking about the best ways to head off and manage disasters, Green says there is little that can be done when students, faculty, and staff don’t take some personal responsibility for their safety.
As tornado sirens sounded in April, some UI police officers witnessed several apparently curious students wandering out of the residence halls to peer at the skies. Green says officers used PA systems on their squad cars to instruct the students to take cover.
“Clearly, if people don’t respond to warnings, for example, fire alarms in the residence halls, there’s not much we can do,” says Belinda Marner, assistant vice president for student services. “It comes down to being alert to your surroundings, and knowing what to do and where to go.”
That means always being aware of the nearest exits in residence halls and campus buildings, and following directions during an emergency, Marner says. Each student receives a guidebook with safety information when they move in to the halls. Resident assistants review the procedures with new students at floor meetings early in the semester, and exits are clearly marked.
The morning after the tornado, University Relations staff created a web site filled with photos, information, and announcements about the storm and recovery effort. Parents could see the extent of damage and read critical announcements. Steve Parrott, director of University Relations, says online communication is valuable in a time of crisis.
“With the web, we can continue updating the situation as often as we need to,” Parrott says. “Not only could we offer photographs the morning after the tornado, but also new information as it came in.”
Still, for most parents, nothing replaces the sound of their child’s voice. As Provost Michael Hogan reminded students in an e-mail message sent campuswide the day after the storm: “If you have not already done so, remember…to call Mom and Dad just to let them know that you’re okay.”
by Madelaine Jerousek-Smith