How UH makes the decision to close campus in emergencies
When emergency weather situations arise, such as last week’s Tropical Storm Imelda, decisions regarding campus closure and class cancellation are made by the University’s president, or a designee, in collaboration with the Executive Operations Team.
Just two hours after stating operations would continue as normal but students who couldn’t make it wouldn’t be penalized, the University announced that its main campus, as well as UH at Katy and UH at Sugarland, would be closed for the rest of the day. The University remained closed Friday, Sept. 20, as well as through the following weekend.
The EOT is tasked with making recommendations to the University president regarding campus closure, the safety of the University and campus response to an emergency, according to the UH Emergency Management Plan. However, only the University president or his/her designee has the authority to cancel classes or close the University in the event of a campus emergency.
“The EOT is updated by the Office of Emergency Management and is able to monitor changes in real-time through the virtual (Emergency Operations Center) that allows for streaming and real-time communication between University stakeholders, such as (Office of Emergency Management), facilities and police,” said Executive Director of Media Relations Shawn Lindsey.
Making recommendations regarding Imelda was challenging, as Eric Berger wrote on Space City Weather that the flooding event was far more severe than expected.
“The operations team uses the information available at any given point in time, but it’s still a calculation with a number of uncertainties,” Lindsey said. “When the conditions and information change, adjustments have to be made.”
The University relies on the Emergency Management Plan and the Continuity of Operations Plan to guide its management of an emergency and the subsequent recovery, according to a letter from President Renu Khator sent in 2008.
The EMP is designed to provide an organizational structure for the University’s response to on-campus incidents, while the Continuity of Operations Plan is intended to ensure that essential University functions are “performed throughout, resume quickly and return to normal operations during a wide range of emergencies,” including major rain events.
The EMP is reviewed annually by the Emergency Planning Committee in the OEM, but the document can also be changed as required over the course of the academic year.
Following Hurricane Ike in 2008, the EMP was rewritten, amended and passed, said the former Director of Emergency Management Joe Mendez.
This revision came on the heels of Dr. Khator’s apology for her decision to reopen the University three days after Hurricane Ike made landfall on Sept. 13, 2008.
As was the case following Hurricane Ike, the University announced during Imelda that students would not be penalized for absences due to severe weather and that they should only come to campus if they felt safe to do so.
The concept of individual flexibility in regards to attendance penalties is broadly defined so that the University can be nimble in the event of an emergency, Lindsey said.
“The colleges, Division of Student Affairs and Enrollment Services, and the Office of the Provost work directly with students in these situations to understand their specific circumstances and to determine if and how they can be accommodated,” Lindsey said. “It’s in no one’s best interest for a weather emergency to adversely impact a student’s academic career.”
Thousands of students, faculty and staff flocked to the University last Thursday following the announcement that UH would continue operations.
“Imelda proved particularly challenging — conditions changed quickly leaving much of the city stranded,” Khator said in a letter on Monday. “After each event like this, we listen to your feedback and no matter the outcome, look for ways to do things better. This time is no different.”
College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics Communications Coordinator Rachel Fairbank was among those who made the journey to campus in spite of the weather. She was worried about getting her son, who was staying in UH’s daycare, home safely and wishes that the University had considered the weather reports more seriously.
“UH has a responsibility to keep its community safe. Their decision to keep the University open, even when there was a reasonable risk of flooding, betrayed that trust,” said Fairbank. “Making the decision to stay open, even when there is personal risk involved in getting to and from work, exploits a balance of power between employer and employee.”
Following the closure of campus, some students were unable to return home safely, leaving them stranded. The Student Center and Moody Dining Commons continued operations in order to provide students on campus a safe place to go.
The LGBT Center and Cougar Village I also opened their doors to students stuck on campus, with the former offering movies and warm beverages and the latter opening its lounge overnight to students unable to travel home.
For Fairbank, who was concerned about making it home safely the day of the storm and assumed the University would close for the storm, she plans to study the weather reports more carefully going forward.
“I think the powers-that-be need to leave E. Cullen every once in a while, in order to understand the day-to-day realities of the rest of the UH community,” said Fairbank.