“Several of us at the University of Houston know firsthand that here on the Gulf Coast, hurricanes are not some hypothetical hazard but a fact of life.”
I wrote that in June of last year, urging our campus community to be prepared as another hurricane season began. It proved to be grimly prophetic. Two months later, Hurricane Harvey was inundating our area with unending torrents of rain. People all across the world watched in shock as our city seemed to sink beneath the waves while makeshift boats rescued desperate people stranded on rooftops. It was a tremendous trial for the city of Houston—and by extension, our university.
A year later, I’m enormously thankful to say that Houston—and UH—not only survived, but also gained some valuable insights. I’m still reminded of the length of time recovery takes, the need to center emergency preparation and response around people, and the need to relentlessly communicate. These lessons are top of mind as we wade into another hurricane season.
Looking back, communication was the current that guided us through the storm. As Harvey wreaked havoc for three days, I joined my communications team in using social media and email to reach out to our students, faculty, and staff.
After creating a special Harvey email account, we received more than 1,100 inquiries and personally responded to each one. Understanding concerns and providing information and assurance helped ease anxieties during a time of great uncertainty. Although it seems obvious, the importance of effective emergency communication can’t be overstated.
So, too, is the necessity of emergency planning. Our board of regents set the expectation of a viable emergency management plan. We have worked hard to meet that expectation, assessing and updating the plan on a regular basis. UH has been battered before—by Tropical Storm Allison and Hurricane Ike in particular—but we were far better prepared this time because we had routinely tested our plans.
Still, I was reminded that it is relatively easy to shut down a university of 45,000 students and 10,000 faculty and staff. The hard part is reopening. Once the storm passed, our crews worked almost nonstop, meticulously inspecting every building for damage, initiating repairs, relocating classrooms, and restoring essential services. Even though the campus infrastructure weathered the storm relatively well, I delayed officially reopening the university to allow others to begin their own individual recovery efforts. UH itself may have been “fine,” but much of the city was not. Listening to members of our community, it was evident that they could benefit from more time to recoup.
When we did reopen, we were faced with a returning student body—and employees— still beset by personal problems. Reestablishing our educational routines while not jeopardizing overall academic progress was crucial, but I insisted we do so with three core principles as our guide: support, flexibility, and compassion. Professors were charged with using their best judgment in balancing the needs of their students and the demands of the curriculum. Special financial assistance was extended. Temporary housing was arranged. Compromises were suggested. Adjustments were made.
Nevertheless, we were understandably concerned about another kind of flood— withdrawals. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of UH students whose lives were still in post-Harvey turmoil might have to drop out to help their families rebuild their lives. The impact on tuition, not to mention the students’ academic advancement, could be devastating.
Facing great uncertainty, we extended numerous deadlines, including dates for course drops, withdrawals, residency applications, health insurance coverage, and payment plans. Every student who applied to withdraw was personally contacted to help troubleshoot challenges and continue enrollment.
For the first few days after we reopened, we anxiously watched the official numbers from the registrar’s office. Finally, we breathed a sigh of relief. Despite the disaster and our disrupted academic schedule, original enrollment numbers for the semester remained constant. In other words, virtually all students who started attending classes in August found a way to return. That is an amazing tribute to our students’ commitment and, I believe, to the support “Houston’s university” provided them.