Written by Debbie Karcher
As a former Chief Information Officer of Miami-Dade County Public Schools I would have already had the pre-hurricane activities completed. June 1st is the start of hurricane season and I was going to publish an article about hurricane preparedness and provide links to useful resources; and I still am. But, recent natural disasters demonstrate that they are occurring year-round. The West experiences fires and avalanches during the Summer, nor’easters bring the Northeast to a standstill during the Winter, tornadoes rampage the Midwest during the Spring, and hurricanes can strike the the South well into the Fall. This article provides five rules to help districts should they have to prepare for or clean-up after a natural disaster. Note, for this article all disasters will be described as an Event.
Rule Number 1 – No Event is ever the same!
Even if you have been under a hurricane warning many times there will be things taking place that did not occur in past. For example, the day of the week will impact decisions. If a storm warning is threating the district and it is Thursday do you close school on Friday? Do you run the buses in hopes that the storm will dissipate or move away from you? And if a storm is scheduled to hit on a Monday do you have your critical personnel working and preparing the district on Friday or do you wait until Saturday to see if the storm changes direction? All aspects need to be considered and district decisions should be based on past experiences, district policies, and local government direction. The one constant is that district updates to employees, parents and community members regarding school closures and opening of shelters is critical.
Miami-Dade referred to its last Event as a tree Event; meaning that thousands of trees were blown down but there was not much structural or water damage. Activities around this Event were different in that removing debris and getting power restored were the priority. It allowed the district to get schools opened quickly if they had power, air conditioning, were absence of mold and there was access to the schools. Most schools were ready to open in a matter of days as the power company was able to restore electricity very quickly. However, the telephone carriers had more extensive repairs and restoring service was slower. This had not been the case in past Events. To get around this schools without phone service published cell numbers. The district has added additional emergency portable phone systems to mitigate this risk in the future.
Rule Number 2 – Prepare before the Event season starts!
Do not wait until the Event season to get ready. You can begin to prepare by reviewing and updating your Disaster Recovery Plan. I was always surprised as to the number of changes made to the plan after our review. Internal staff and vendors change and their contact information needs updating. Equipment, vehicles, red cross shelters, food and fuel delivery, and communications systems all need to be verified. Each location needs to have photos taken of any structural, equipment, or property changes and/or additions. Communications regarding these activities should be taking place to raise awareness that the Event season has started. Determine how you and your team will communicate. During my last Event, we decided to do a group chat using WhatsApp to monitor the data center and each other during the storm. This was not a district application but since most of us had personal phones and different carriers it was unlikely that all communications, in the entire county, would be unavailable; keeping us connected.
Rule Number 3 – Review the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) rules and guidelines!
The correct reporting of FEMA related expenses is imperative to your district receiving the funding it is entitled to for pre and post Event costs. Even though, In October 2018 the Disaster Recovery Reform Act of 2018 was enacted with the intent to reduce the complexity of submitting FEMA claims, it is still a complex and detailed process. Your district’s recovery team should adjust their FEMA reporting processes accordingly. Updated forms and procedures need to be sent your disaster response units and all members should be required to complete district led FEMA training.
Rule Number 4 – Use existing and free resources!
In other words, do not reinvent the wheel. If reading this, and you realize that your district does not have an updated disaster recovery plan or a pre and post Event checklist there are several sources available that have been vetted and used. The Consortium of School Networks (COSN) has the IT Crisis Preparedness site that has several examples of checklists and resources that are easily incorporated into your plans. There is also a checklist for Infrastructure Disaster Recovery After Water Damage written specifically for the data center. FEMA offers several communications toolkits for all types of Events including fires, floods, and other severe weather. Above all, reach out to your colleagues who have recently experienced an Event for their lessons learned or to help them if they are facing an Event. Lastly, contact your colleagues in neighboring districts for their help or to help them. As competitive as districts may be this is the time to join forces and resources.
Rule Number 5 – People will not always remember what to do!
There should be drills and training taking place for all people involved in Event crisis management. There is a good chance (hopefully) that your team has not had to use or go through any of the activities related to a storm. But not going through any of the activities probably means people will not remember what to do. Those employees involved in FEMA reporting, facility preparedness, red cross shelter procedures, communications procedures, and alternate emergency operations center(s) all need to participate in drills and training. The benefits are two-fold; they raise awareness about the impending possibility of Events and tests the plans.