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Friday, September 21, 2018

Administration

Plan for storms laid far in advance of weather disasters


On campus, Bayou Oaks had to be evacuated because of flooding after Hurricane Harvey as part of the emergency management plan. | File Photo/The Cougar

When potentially dangerous weather makes its way toward campus, the University kicks into high gear.

While classes may be closed and University services suspended, there’s a team at work coordinating strategies to best weather storms like Hurricane Harvey and January’s snowfall. Kelly Boysen, director of Office of Emergency Management, said round-the-clock essential services continue, and for storms like Harvey it’s all hands on deck.

“We really rely on our partners,” Boysen said. “They do an incredible job.”

Before the storm

OEM works with regional managers of local weather communication centers to get the most accurate information from agencies like the National Weather Service.

In the event that sudden severe weather threatens to affect the functioning of campus, Boysen and her team set up a conference call with other University leaders to lay out potential threats and assess the possible impacts.

Emergency Management then works closely with City of Houston and Harris County Emergency Services so, as was the case with the ice storm, it can give the UH executive operations team as much time as possible to prepare a report for the president — Renu Khator — so she can make the determination to close the school.

When it hits

The emergency operations center used by OEM is where the team receives all communications from the state and determines at which level they activate the emergency management plan.

With the ice storm — classified as a low-level emergency activation — UH spokesperson Mike Rosen said the first alert was pushed at 6:33 p.m. on January 15, the day before classes were set to resume. Rosen said time is a key factor in keeping students and faculty out of harm’s way, so communication across University leadership teams is critical.

With Harvey, something different

Six months ago, Hurricane Harvey dropped in on Houston after the first week of school, and its rains and flooding caused the University to close for a full week.

Boysen said the University was “plugged in” and up to date on the most recent weather information available, and when the county started its first evacuation recommendations, OEM was ready.

The campus received nearly 35 inches of rain; three buildings took on water, and students living on the first floor of the Bayou Oaks residence hall had to be evacuated.

Harvey pummeled the Houston area with winds and rain over the course of a couple days, but with the rains stopped and the flood waters high, OEM deployed ride-out teams to maintain safety and security on campus, Boysen said.

The ride-out teams are made up of people who provide essential services. UHPD kept up patrols on campus and was aware of all activity, and some dining services were resumed for those students who reside on campus.

Boysen said there were situation reports constantly exchanged between OEM and their campus liaisons that detailed flooding, damage and anything else happening at the school.

Work ramps up

Rosen said that day-to-day operations are laid out in a business continuity plan that keeps up with essential functions. Throughout Harvey, leadership directors of all University divisions were in constant contact through conference calls and emails.

Even if travel to campus is impossible, various teams do off-campus work that continues throughout the day and certain departments’ workload increases dramatically.

“With the Harvey emergency, the entire media relations team worked more hours than we would have in a regular school week,” Rosen said.

Costs and concerns

Data provided by the University finance department shows that the school saw an opportunity revenue loss of $41,000 as a result of the week the school was shut down because of Harvey.

That money is revenue the school would have collected but was not able to because all classroom and business services were shut down.

Actual costs can vary due to particular circumstances, but based on the numbers, a school shut down cost about $5,850 per day because of Harvey.

The University was proactive in extending important deadlines like the last day to drop a class. The withdrawal date was also extended, with the option for students to receive up to 70 percent of their tuition back. 

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