U visits universities in New Orleans to study emergency response

By By Jennifer Winters

By Jennifer Winters

A team of 12 staff and faculty members from the U visited Louisiana recently to evaluate how local universities responded to and recovered from Hurricane Katrina.

The trip was funded by a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant that the U won last year to launch a comprehensive pre-disaster mitigation plan which will serve as a model for universities facing all kinds of hazards — both natural and man-made.

The trip, which took place in early October, involved staffers from different departments who have a role in disaster planning, response and recovery. Professors and staff members had an opportunity to evaluate how well the U would respond to a catastrophic disaster, such as an earthquake, that could paralyze operations on campus and the surrounding community.

“It is often easier to think through the way you do things by looking at how others do things,” said Wayne McCormack, chair of the Disaster Resistant University Advisory Council at the U. “It allows you to look at yourself more critically.”

In Louisiana the team separated into two groups. One group went to Tulane University and the University of New Orleans, which were submerged underwater following Katrina. The other group went to Louisiana State University located in Baton Rouge, which had no physical damage. Consequently, it served as a shelter for victims and a launch pad for the state to mount a response.

Martha Shaub, director of environmental health and safety at the U, said that one of her “a-ha moments” was learning how displaced researchers from Tulane were able to continue with their work by temporarily relocating to LSU.

“Research doesn’t stop,” Shaub said. “It’s important to get their support reinstated as quickly as possible. It’s been demonstrated that it can be done after a disaster. You can be in business.”

Michael Halligan, the U’s fire marshal, served as a point man on safety during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Halligan said the Olympics provided the U with plenty of opportunities for learning how to prepare for a large, unexpected event. While the Olympic experience had its merits, the trip helped him better understand how it wasn’t completely analogous to the preparation and response required for a major disaster, he said.

“We had two years to plan and get the resources needed for the Olympics,” Halligan said. “On the other hand, an earthquake only takes about five minutes. Are we able to get the same resources we need on a much shorter time frame?”

An important resource is fencing, Halligan said. He said that a large building on campus could be made into a makeshift hospital if a disaster were to happen. A lot of fencing would be required to help control traffic flow and segregate different types of patients and areas such as a morgue and surgery area.

“In a disaster, I don’t know if we’ll have access to all the fencing we need,” Halligan said.

The trip to Louisiana wass part of a larger scheme: the U’s initiative to take its emergency plan to the next level — risk-based preparation management. It is a model that focuses on reducing or eliminating risks from hazards instead of addressing the effects from a disaster after they happen, according to FEMA’s State and Local Mitigation Planning.

After winning a FEMA grant, the U has been in the process of developing a mitigation plan due by the end of September 2008. Once the plan is completed next fall, a copy will be given to FEMA. The U and any other university may use the published mitigation plan as a road map, which will show step-by-step how to best prepare for disasters that are characteristic of the region, whether it is earthquakes, hurricanes or other disasters. The grant money and an additional $250,000 that came from the U’s resources are paying for the cost to develop the mitigation plan.

“External funding source gave us the means,” Shaub said. “Internal funding support gave us the will.”

The U has been fine-tuning its emergency management plan for several years with the support of President Michael Young’s administration.

“You can’t do this if your administration isn’t supportive in giving the amount of resources needed,” Shaub said. “This assumption was confirmed on the trip to Louisiana.”

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