The Higher Ed Workplace Blog

After the Flood: How One College’s Disaster Response Plan Helped It Weather the Storm

This article was prepared in recognition of National Preparedness Month. However, as our colleagues in North and South Carolina deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, Houston Community College’s story resonates for its lessons on both preparedness and recovery.

On August 25, 2017, Hurricane Harvey made landfall on the Texas Gulf Coast. For the next four days, the city of Houston and surrounding Harris County saw catastrophic rainfall.

By the time the storm moved out of the area, an estimated 70 percent of Harris County’s 1,800 square miles was covered in a foot and a half of water, and an estimated 136,000 structures had been flooded. At Houston Community College, more than 10 percent of the college’s 6,300 employees and 60 percent of its 70,000 students reported being directly impacted by Hurricane Harvey.

Although clean-up and recovery throughout Harris County would take several months and thousands of hours of manpower and cost millions of dollars, Houston Community College (HCC) was able to resume normal operations in less than two weeks while also providing flexibility and assistance to those students and employees who were most impacted.

A Campus Community in Crisis

According to Katherine Engle, the college’s executive director of talent acquisition, training, and learning and development, “One of the top priorities of HCC administrators post-Harvey was to assist those employees and students who needed help, be it financial assistance, time off, donations of food and clothing, whatever we could do to help ease their burden.”

The college set up donation sites, manned by staff and faculty volunteers, at all six campuses. Administrators put in place an employee disaster relief fund so individuals could easily donate to their peers and colleagues. According to Engle, more than $170,000 in donations came in, which allowed HCC to provide financial assistance to more than 385 employees. The most severely impacted employees received up to 10 days of paid leave, and all employees received five days of paid leave when the college was closed during the storm.

Help Is Just a Phone Call Away

Human resources at HCC helped oversee relief efforts and was the driving force and manpower behind a disaster recovery phone hotline, which after the storm served as a means to locate and determine the well-being of staff, faculty and students; to proactively connect the college’s workforce and students to disaster recovery resources; to estimate and classify workforce strength immediately following the storm; and to facilitate employees’ return to work and students’ return to the classroom. Over the course of three weeks, approximately 500 students, faculty and staff were referred to internal or external resources through the hotline.

Here’s how Houston Community College created and managed its disaster recovery hotline — a low-cost model that, says Engle, other institutions across the country can easily emulate.

  • Determine staffing needs. At HCC, five training and development professionals and three HR business partners were tapped to man the hotline. They were mobilized during the college closing (contacted via email, phone or text) and stood at the ready to help the campus community post-Harvey. Immediately following the hurricane, training services were suspended for a period of four weeks so these staff members could focus on relief efforts. For several weeks, the eight staff members worked the hotline four hours a day from their regular work stations.
  • Train hotline staff. The hotline staff were trained via conference call the Friday before the college reopened on Monday. For those who were unavailable before reopening, a brief onsite training was conducted the day the college reopened. In addition, 15-minute touch-base meetings were held every morning for three weeks to discuss emerging issues and share best practices. Hotline staff were also provided with a quick reference library of external and internal resources (organizational, city, county, state and federal).
  • Establish key partnerships. For HCC human resources, partnerships included IT, communications, student services, the employee assistance program and faculty leadership.
  • Work with IT to create a telephone system, automatic referrals and communications system. HR worked in partnership with IT staff to launch the phone hotline. The phone system was configured by staff who reported to work while the college was closed to ensure the system was operational upon reopening.
  • Create response scripts for staff operating the hotline. It was important for those answering calls to have specific information and direction on how to address callers, most of whom who were experiencing extreme distress. The script provided consistency in opening and closing the conversation with both compassion and intellect and provided a level of comfort for staff operating the hotline.
  • Establish standards for case resolution. Examples of case resolution standards at HCC were to successfully refer a student, faculty or staff member to the appropriate resource(s) within 24 hours after making contact and to make an immediate and direct referral to financial aid for or on behalf of a student experiencing extreme financial stress.
  • Establish metrics. HCC developed a tracking method for all calls coming into and going out of the hotline. Data collected included caller name, phone number and status (student, faculty or staff); name of staffer who made or received the call; the category of the request or accommodation being made (health and safety, transportation, food, housing, supplies, donation, etc.); date of contact; response date; and outcome of the call.

Says Engle, “The hotline was instrumental in helping us connect our employees and students to the resources they needed to be able to begin rebuilding, healing and returning to work and school.”

In the Meantime …

While navigating the logistics of implementing a disaster recovery hotline will take some time and planning, Engle suggests some simple procedures you can implement now to make sure that, in the event of a disaster or emergency situation that affects your campus community, employees and students are accounted for and communicated with:

  • Establish a roll-call system for employees and students to report their status at the end of the event;
  • Establish phone trees in departments using text messages so that staff and faculty can easily communicate with one another;
  • Send organizational update text messages and emails to all employees and students on a regular basis before and after the event; and
  • Include updates on the status of the institution and links to available resources on the institution’s website.

“Whether an organization is placed in the position to react to a natural disaster, a campus emergency or any number of other crises, ensuring impacted populations are safe, secure and connected to internal and external resources is fundamental to resuming stability and business continuity,” says Engle.

Additional Resources

The Crisis Management Toolkit in CUPA-HR’s Knowledge Center features a wealth of resources, including these from HCC:

  • After the Storm: Greater Houston Area (a resource guide)
  • Available Resources for Employees
  • Disaster Relief Volunteer Web Form
  • Donate Now – Houston Community College Foundation
  • Hurricane Harvey Catastrophic Leave
  • Interacting with Students – Creating a Supportive Environment

September is National Preparedness Month, and you can find myriad resources on disaster planning and response at https://www.ready.gov/september.

For more on risk management and compliance, read the Fall 2018 issue of CUPA-HR’s The Higher Education Workplace magazine.

 

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