Rebounding from Tragedy

Rebounding from Tragedy

Schools and universities hit by disaster need to react quickly so that students can resume their education with minimal interruption.

It can happen suddenly — a shockingly random burst of violence from a person on campus, or a spark from a fallen wire that ignites a devastating blaze. It can happen with plenty of warning and still be catastrophic — a relentlessly rising river that spills over its banks and swallows part of a school campus.

Some regions are prone to hurricanes, tornadoes, floods or earthquakes. Other tragedies, such as fires or acts of violence, can occur just about anywhere. Regardless of the specific type of disaster, schools and universities must be prepared to cope with crises that can disrupt operations, destroy facilities, and displace students and staff.

Education administrators need to respond quickly to rebound from such incidents because students are depending on them to provide an environment where they can recover — and continue to learn.

Fire and ice

In December 2007, an ice storm struck the Oklahoma City area; it brought down electrical lines and knocked out power for many, including the high school in Jones, about 15 miles east of Oklahoma City.

So when a fire started — apparently from downed power lines — on the roof of Jones High School in the early morning of Dec. 10, the fire alarm was not functioning. By the time the flames were detected and firefighters were able to respond, the facility was consumed with fire. No one was injured, but more than 300 students lost their school.

With the help of many individuals, businesses and organizations in the community, Jones school officials acted quickly to get students back into classrooms and began putting together plans to rebuild.

"Other districts around here were out for five days because of the ice storm," says Jones superintendent Michael Steele. "Even with the fire, our students were out only seven days. Things really fell into place."

Immediately after the fire, the district set up classrooms in the back of a gymnasium and in a vocational-agricultural building that were spared from the flames. The county government, Oklahoma State University's Local Technical Assistance Program and area businesses came together to help the district construct pads for portable classrooms. Without a cafeteria, students were served lunch at a church across the street.

Students and teachers made do, but conditions were hardly ideal. To get to and from classes, they often would encounter wind, rain and snow.

"You don't want your students having to go through that," says Steele. "Their hallways are gravel. They get soaking wet walking to classes. Their book bags get frozen. But they've really fared pretty well."

A temporary site is more palatable when those involved know a permanent solution is on the way. Voters in the Jones district provided that permanent answer in April 2008, when they approved a $12.4 million bond proposal.

"We had 80 percent approval," says Steele. "We were very pleased with the results."

Combined with insurance proceeds, the money is enabling the district to build a new Jones High School. The high school will have two stories, with 26 classrooms and a cafeteria. It will have capacity for 400 students. The campus also will have a newly built gymnasium.

"They are putting up the tilt-up walls for the gymnasium as we speak," says Steele.

With the perspective of 15 months since the catastrophe, Steele describes the experience as bittersweet.

"There is some nostalgia about the old school," he concedes. "What people inquired about most after the fire were the senior pictures that hung on the walls. The fire didn't just burn the pictures, it disintegrated the frames they were in. We're trying to go back and restore as many of them as we can."

But Steele believes the promise of the future can compensate for the memories that were turned to ashes.

"Without the fire, Jones never would have passed a bond issue of this magnitude," he says. "Everyone's really eager to get into the new high school."

The building is scheduled to be finished in May 2010.

Getting the word out

One of the critical missions for an education institution beset by a crisis is to keep its constituents informed on what is happening and how they should respond. Schools and universities can use the Internet and other technologies to provide students, employees and community members with frequent updates as a crisis evolves.

At the University of Iowa in June 2008, officials watched with increasing alarm as Iowa River water levels rose and it became clear that flooding would affect the Iowa City campus.

"We knew it was coming," says Stephen Pradarelli, director of news services for the University of Iowa. "If it did hit, we wanted to be able to update the website remotely and have multiple people with the ability to update it."

Because it would have been difficult to use the university's internal system for remote updating, the quickest way to set up a site with off-site access was to use an external blogging tool and set up a blog for flood updates.

"We put out what buildings were closed, and what parts of campus to stay away from, which summer programs that had to be cancelled or rescheduled," says Pradarelli. "It was real-time updating of mission-critical issues."

The blog was an especially effective way to disseminate information for a flood, Pradarelli says. Unlike a tornado or fire that occurs quickly and may be over before officials can get the word out to people, flooding conditions develop and change over days and weeks, and the information that people connected to a campus need to know also will change.

The first blog post was made on June 5 before the campus flooded to let people know about road closures and alternative routes on campus. Over the next several days, the blog solicited for volunteers to fill sandbags, reported relocation of classes and some activities, and cancellation of other events.

By June 12, the blog entries were carrying a more serious tone. "The flooding situation on campus, in the community, and in our region is growing more dire by the minute," a message from university president Sally Mason warned. "We will very soon see unprecedented threats to our campus and community."

The blog offered health warnings related to flood water, resources for those seeking mental-health services, and tips for coping with stress and anxiety. It sought volunteers to help move books from the library, and kept others informed on where sandbagging volunteers needed to be deployed. Each day, a list was posted of which buildings were closed and which were ready to reopen.

"I think it absolutely became the Rosetta Stone of information for campus," says Pradarelli. "There was so much misinformation on campus. We were a kind of Rumor Control. It really fit the bill for what was needed. It served an important purpose."

Using an external system for a blog led to some problems. Because some of the postings were misinterpreted as spam, the blogging software threatened to shut down the blog, Pradarelli says. He was able to move the blog postings to a new site and continue putting information out.

"In the future, for something like this, I would try to use an internal system," Pradarelli says.

As the flood waters receded and some parts of the campus returned to somewhat normal operations, the blog postings were less frequent and less urgent. Even so, university staff members continue to post flood-related information on the blog.

"It's not playing the same role as it did early on," says Pradarelli. "It has now evolved to more big-picture issues."

In addition, as the university has settled into a post-flood "new normal," it has established a more permanent web site (http://www.uiowa.edu/floodrecovery/) with historical information and guidance about where to get help and flood-related services. It includes an "Iowa City Flood Digital Collection" with 3,400 photos from in and around the university campus and two dozen oral histories compiled by the university's anthropology department.

The flooding will continue to be a dominant theme on the Iowa City campus for years to come, as school officials try to determine how to restore or replace facilities still out of commission. In March, university officials estimated that flood recovery costs for the campus will run to $740 million.

The university website lists seven major campus buildings that were still closed for Spring semester — the Art Building, the Art Building West, Danforth Chapel, Hancher Auditorium, Hawkeye Court Apartments, Museum of Art and the the Voxman/Clapp Music Building.

"We still have a substantial part of the arts campus whose future is up in the air," Pradarelli says. "It will be years before the arts campus is re-established in some fashion."

  • Read the "A memorial for victims" sidebar for information on Northern Illinois University's plan to build a memorial garden near the site of the tragedy, where a gunman killed five people and took his own life.
  • Read the "Coming back from Katrina: An incomplete recovery" sidebar for information on student enrollment in New Orleans-area school districts after Hurricane Katrina.

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].

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