Thursday, June 2, 2011

Preparedness through technology

It is impossible to live in post-Katrina New Orleans and not have the dates of hurricane season emblazoned in your mind: June 1 - November 30. The news media hype up the dates, the state gives you tax-free shopping for hurricane supplies, brochures about "preparedness" appear everywhere, and the businesses test their emergency response measures. This time of year, my husband dutifully checks the generator and then marches up to the attic to replenish the hurricane box which gets fresh bottled water, food, paper, pens, batteries, a few decks of cards, first aid kit, clothes, and flashlights. We don't really speak about the fact that an ax also sits in that container, but we know the risks of living in the city--a city that we love and that has adopted us so generously into part of the NOLA family.

It is equally impossible to completely forget the stress of hurricane season, which begins during our first week of summer session every year. With that in mind, I have to make the announcement during class that everyone must use Blackboard this semester (and fall semester) and in the case of a campus closure due to weather we will try to meet virtually. Students then typically reference our 2008 Gustav evacuation and 2005 Katrina evacuation. We all hope that we won't need to pack up and leave again.

SUNO Library a year after Katrina
SUNO, January 2006
My former office location. We have 45 such FEMA buildings.
What so many outside of New Orleans don't understand is that Katrina isn't a memory, it isn't a past, it is present in every day life here. As I blogged last fall, many of us have spent our post-Katrina time in FEMA trailers, shared offices, and with the first floors of our buildings STILL off limits. We work on the second and third floors walking past the boarded up entries each day. We manage offices with sporadic air conditioning and heat. We send students to a temporary library. We drive past homes with the too-familiar orange spray paint "x" symbols and boarded up windows. We have half of our campus still utilizing FEMA buildings. We live with water line stains above our heads and frustration in the slow process of putting our campus back together. We are in ninth ward New Orleans and we continue to live the aftermath of Katrina every day.

Since yesterday marked the beginning of the 2011 hurricane season, I thought it would be appropriate to note how far higher education has come in emergency preparedness. The word "preparation" itself has come to mean so much more in our digital age. As educators, we now have many tools available that help us to reach our students virtually. The use of an LMS like Blackboard is just one avenue that can help. Many of my students were in NOLA during Katrina (I was not, I moved to the city in 2007) and they remark that Facebook was the reason they found their family and friends. Today, I purposefully offer multiple points of contact for my students and embrace social media and our LMS knowing that it can offer in-roads the old telephone-on-the-desk contact information cannot. Our institution survived by transitioning to online course offerings for our displaced students and literally by administrators and faculty using personal cells, email, and social media to reach out to find our students/faculty to tell them to return for classes.  I am happy to note that in 2008 we began re-occupying the second and third floors of some of our buildings. To date, we have two new buildings and look forward to more. Though progress is slow, our campus is recovering.

Despite budget cuts and downsizing, higher education institutions increasingly offer "emergency preparedness technology" links on their home pages noting that one can sign up for text alerts, tweets, and streaming updates in the event of a campus emergency. As the unfortunate weather events of the past several months detail, no institution is immune from an emergency like floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes. Consider your personal preparedness plan by exploring sites like the NHC. Consider your academic preparedness plans, too. Many of our faculty members lost research, data, documents essential to their careers, hard drives, files, laptops, teaching evaluations, and equipment. Ponder how you can best back up your information and what responsibility you might bear for students or others at your organization. For example, when my husband and I evacuated for Gustav in 2008 we touched base with two students who didn't have family near to make sure they found rides out and had places to stay--it turned out THREE other faculty members had called the students. That is but one reason why I love the folks at my institution. There is a family feel here. It is that feeling that has compelled me to write this note encouraging preparedness (no matter your geographic location).

As you plan don't forget how easily you might be able to count technology in to your plans (though we should plan for a lack of technology, too). I wish everyone a safe hurricane season and thank you for indulging this blog entry.

Read more about SUNO's history here
Top image from Coast Guard site.  Middle image (SUNO library) from Times-Picayune. Middle image (SUNO campus) from Photo site. Middle image from my personal photo collection. Final image from Eastern Michigan University.

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