Weathering the Storms

By Stephen G. Pelletier    //    Volume 25,  Number 6   //    November/December 2017

Coming at the beginning of the fall 2017 semester, hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria tested the limits of colleges and universities in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico. In practical terms, the storms enabled institutions to assess how well prepared they are for emergencies. At the same time, the hurricanes provided distinctive ways for institutions to prove their value as anchors of their communities. Defying stereotypes about town-and-gown friction, for example, hundreds of students at the University of Houston (UH) volunteered to help out at local shelters and supply-distribution sites after Harvey hit. The students helped rescue senior citizens who were stranded, collected supplies for donation, and cleaned flooded homes.

“During these times, nobody thinks about town-and-gown relations,” noted Renu Khator, who is president and chancellor of the University of Houston System and a member of AGB’s Council of Presidents. “You get up on your feet if you are strong enough and you help your neighbors and you help your community. It has been truly amazing to see how people helped one another as the family of the University of Houston and how they extended their helping hand to help Houston as a whole.” Khator added that volunteering proved to be a rich learning experience for students. “When I talk with anybody who has gone out to help the community, you can feel that it has in some way transformed them,” she said.

The winds from Harvey, Irma, and Maria had barely died down and cleanup was still underway when university leaders pivoted from managing recovery to focusing on the future. That gave them a chance to reflect on important questions. What were the hurricanes’ full effects, and what lasting impacts might they have? How well did emergency planning work? And what lessons can be learned by governing board members and other institutional leaders who might one day face similar disruptions of their own? Here we take a closer look at the many dimensions of hurricane preparedness and response.


Hurricane Harvey, the first Category 4 storm to land in Texas since 1961, had winds as high as 130 miles per hour. The storm lingered over Houston for three days in August, dropping more than 50 inches of rain. More than 75 people died. Damage estimates top $180 billion.

Days after Harvey hit Texas, Hurricane Irma pummeled Florida. While Irma hit the state as a Category 4 storm, at one point it was a Category 5—the strongest storm the National Hurricane Center has ever recorded in the Atlantic outside the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. Irma caused more than 80 fatalities in the United States, where it led to more than $50 billion in damage.

A third major hurricane, Maria, was the second Category 5 hurricane of 2017. Maria devastated several islands in the Caribbean, including Dominica, and caused widespread damage in Puerto Rico. Even before final numbers had been tallied, Maria had killed 90 people and caused upwards of $100 billion in damage.

At colleges and universities in those regions, physical damage from the hurricanes ranged from relatively light to severe. Perhaps even more noteworthy, though, was the significant disruption the hurricanes wreaked on the lives of university students and staff, to say nothing of their impact on the daily business of academe. The experiences of various institutions yield insights about how higher education can best respond to overwhelmingly massive challenges like a Category 5 hurricane.


With several campuses in and around Miami, Florida International University (FIU) felt Irma’s wrath directly. Physical damage was relatively light, but classes were cancelled for more than a week, leading FIU to extend the fall 2017 semester. Perhaps more disruptive Harvey was Irma’s impact on the personal lives of FIU students and staff, many of whom may have fled Miami before the storm only to find extensive damage to their neighborhoods and even their homes when they returned.

FIU temporarily housed 500 local evacuees, including many with special needs. After the storm, the college responded to a request by the Florida Department of Health and the U.S. Public Health Service to house and care for dialysis patients from areas most affected by Irma and Maria. Weeks after Irma hit, FIU President Mark B. Rosenberg reported that the university was still housing about 85 evacuees with special needs, most of whom require dialysis. “Given their circumstances and the dire circumstances in the Caribbean, we’re not sure that they will be going back anytime soon,” Rosenberg said.

While FIU has three professional staff who are dedicated to emergency management, Hurricane Irma marked the first full activation of the university’s Emergency Operations Center. Its work is guided in part by requisite plans, such as one for continuity of operations. The university is also home to an Extreme Events Institute and the National Hurricane Center. “That gives us a capability on campus that is serious and very highly organized” in the face of emergencies, Rosenberg said. “We have planning documents and a planning capability, but also over time we’ve developed an operational organizational culture that gives us confidence that we have the ability to respond in a way that protects property and human lives as well as anybody can.”

FIU plans extensively for hurricanes and other emergency scenarios. Four or five exercises each year simulate emergency situations like a chemical spill or an active shooter on campus. “We also insist that our police be at the highest level of training and preparedness, and we regularly bring other police forces onto campus for orientations so that they get to know the campus, the buildings, and the nature of our operating environment,” Rosenberg said. FIU has a memorandum of understanding with Florida’s Monroe County—which encompasses the Florida Keys—to house special-needs evacuees during emergencies.

At the University of Central Florida (UCF), Grant Heston, associate vice president for communications and public affairs, said UCF plans for emergencies such as hurricanes on two levels. One is logistics, such as identifying which buildings would be safest for students and topping off the diesel fuel that powers the university’s backup generators. At the same time, UCF’s leaders meet regularly to plan how they will decide when to close and then reopen a campus, and how information about emergencies can best be communicated with UCF’s stakeholders. Extensive planning documents and scenario exercises help UCF determine how it will respond in an emergency. UCF learns from experience, too, Heston said, noting that a 2016 hurricane weaker than Irma proved to be something of a “rehearsal for how we would handle something much more significant.”

The University of Houston also learned from Hurricane Ike, a Category 4 storm that hit in 2008. Since Ike, UH has made a regular practice of testing its emergency plans and has invested time in strengthening its plans for emergency management, communications, and continuity of operations. That preparation paid off when Harvey hit. The university was able to execute its plans well—even after the storm lingered over the campus for three days. “We were far better prepared this time because we had tested our plans,” Khator said.


Planning for business continuity, addressing physical damage, and protecting campus safety are only part of hurricane preparation, Heston explained. While UCF’s main campus in Orlando was spared a lot of damage when Irma hit, that did not mean the university was fine. “The communities around us had a lot of damage, and some were without power for seven, eight, nine days. You have to think about how that impacts your students, faculty, and staff,” he said. The storms displaced many UCF students and employees from their homes and caused significant disruptions in their daily routines. As part of addressing Irma’s impact, Heston said UCF’s administrators worked closely together to determine “how we best allow our students, faculty, and staff to make the safest decisions possible for their situation.”

The scope of the demands to help students at UH post-Harvey were evident in letters Khator wrote welcoming students and staff back to campus. The university extended deadlines for financial aid, made temporary housing available to displaced students, opened a 24/7 telephone line for students in need of emotional support, and organized volunteer cleanup efforts under a single umbrella. Urging flexibility and compassion, Khator asked professors to use their best judgment in balancing “the needs of their students and the demands of the curriculum.”

Several weeks after Maria hit Puerto Rico in early September, as much as 70 percent of the island was still without power. A preliminary estimate calculated damage across the 11 campuses of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) at $117.9 million. The worst-hit campus, in Humacao, on the eastern side of the island, saw several buildings leveled and damage estimated at more than $30 million. That campus didn’t reopen until late October. UPR’s campus at Cayey, the last branch to come back online after Maria, would not reopen until early November.

“The first thing we have to say is that all campuses are open as of today,” UPR Interim President Darrell Hillman said from San Juan after welcoming UPR Cayey students back to the campus’s reopening. He reported that the UPR system is making daily progress on its long journey back to normalcy. Campuses are still relying largely on generators for power, but more than 90 percent of students at each campus have returned and classes have resumed. Among the accommodations is allowing more flexibility than usual in student transfers between campuses. In addition, many classes with labs are focusing on lectures while work continues to rehab damaged lab space.

“We will have a complete academic year,” Hillman said, albeit with the first semester ending as late as late February and the second semester running through June. Looking ahead, Hillman said UPR will have to find ways to build stronger buildings that can withstand hurricane-strength wind and rain, as well as ways that campuses can access satellite phones and stock more diesel fuel right before storms.

Speaking from a temporary base in Pennsylvania before returning to work, Evelyn Milagros Rodriguez, a special collections librarian at UPR Humacao, said the building that houses the library had sustained extensive damage and its roof was “leaking like a colander.” But while Maria’s wind and rains ruined offices and a reference room, Rodriguez said there was a bit of good news—two unique special collections had not been damaged. And thanks to generators, air conditioning had been restored, which she hoped would mitigate the threat of damage from mold.

Meanwhile, from New Orleans to Boston, numerous universities on the U.S. mainland offered tuition reductions and other assistance to displaced students from Puerto Rico. As of October, for example, approximately 200 Puerto Rican students had enrolled as visiting students at FIU, which offered the evacuees in-state tuition rates through the spring semester.


Apart from ravaging the physical campuses, hurricanes can also stress budgets at colleges and universities. Some of the costs, such as repairing damage to a flooded building, are obvious. But hurricanes can also have a downstream effect on tuition income when they upend students’ lives to the point that they have to drop out—particularly a factor for low-income students whose financial situation may have been precarious to begin with.

“Eighty-five percent of our students work full- or part-time,” Rosenberg said. “If everything is shut down, they’re not working. If they’re not working, they’re not getting paid. The question becomes not just how we can rearrange the academic calendar, but whether we figure out a way for students to stay in school in spite of any financial hardship the storm may have caused.”

For many institutions struck by Harvey and Irma, helping students and staff meant finding ways to provide direct financial help. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB), Texas Association of Community Colleges, Independent Colleges and Universities of Texas, and several other organizations, institutions, and companies banded together to create Harvey HELP, a fund dedicated to aiding students affected by Hurricane Harvey. Acting as something of a clearinghouse for Harvey relief in higher education, THECB provided webinars on topics such as distributing emergency aid to students. Many of the hurricane-affected universities started their own funds. The University of Houston-Victoria, for example, offered small grants to students to replace lost or damaged items such as clothes, laptops, tablets, school supplies, books, and more. Texas A&M University created a pool of money to meet “small but essential, onetime immediate” financial needs of students and staff affected by Hurricane Harvey.

Coming at the start of football season, Hurricane Irma also had an impact on revenues that universities expected to receive from gridiron games. Irma, for example, caused the UCF Knights to cancel a scheduled game against Georgia Tech—not because of the weather per se, but because UCF had agreed to use its Spectrum Stadium in Orlando to house 1,000 National Guard members, along with 250 of their vehicles. As Heston recalled, “It was a very easy decision for the president and for this university to say, ‘We’re going to host the National Guard. We’re going to help this community to recover.’”


While Harvey, Irma, and Maria tested the limits of colleges and universities on many fronts, the storms provided distinctive ways for institutions to live up to the promise of their missions—and to shine in the public eye. At countless institutions, students and staff put their personal concerns aside to help their communities recover. Near Naples, Florida, for example, students from Ave Maria University helped local residents put up hurricane shutters before Irma hit. Post-Harvey, students and staff from the College of the Mainland in Texas City, Texas, helped local residents remove water-damaged belongings, flooring, and drywall from their homes.

At FIU, academic leaders helped enlist a cadre of students in public health, nursing, and social work to help the U.S. Public Health Service and Red Cross care for evacuees housed on the campus. “That’s important to me because we talk about the fact that as a public, urban university, we’re a solutions center. We say that we’re willing to take responsibility for our community,” Rosenberg said. “When Irma hit, it was an opportunity to show our students why it’s important to reach out and help people.”

The storms also showcased the inherent value of higher education as repositories and generators of knowledge. When the media, local governments, and the public at large wanted information about the hurricanes, they turned routinely to experts from universities in a wide range of disciplines. The Ponte Vedra Recorder, a regional newspaper, consulted Don Resio, a professor of ocean engineering at the University of North Florida, for perspectives on Irma’s magnitude. Fox Business News quoted Shahid Hamid, a professor of finance at FIU’s International Hurricane Research Center, about insurance claims following Irma. The CBS affiliate in Miami turned to Sophia Banu, a psychiatrist at the Baylor College of Medicine, for insights about the psychological effects of hurricanes.

As schools were forced to close, the hurricanes disrupted teaching, learning, and research. But they also provided many opportunities for researchers. While many Floridians were streaming north to escape Irma, for example, researchers from the University of Florida’s Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering drove into the hurricane to collect data about wind velocity that may one day help builders construct safer structures. A week after Harvey, researchers from the University of Georgia’s Institute for Disaster Management were in the field in Texas to collect social science data about evacuation decision-making, sheltering, and relief operations. Student volunteers from the University of Houston and University of Houston-Downtown collected water samples to help the Houston Health Department test levels of contamination.


The role of trustees in hurricane planning should align with a governing board’s overall mandate to set policy but not interfere in dayto- day operations. This means making sure that the institution has a strong, workable plan for dealing with an impending storm, but then stepping back to let administrators execute their institution’s plan.

“The trustees’ most important role is to make sure there is an emergency management plan,” Khator said. Before Harvey hit, Khator made sure the UH board of regents knew the university had a series of plans that would be put into effect. During the storm, she kept trustees apprised of what was happening.

Similarly, when Irma hit South Florida, Rosenberg kept the chair and vice chair of FIU’s board informed about that institution’s plans for closing the school. During the storm, he updated trustees via email and text. After the storm, he noted, a couple of FIU trustees were able to visit campus and see Irma’s effects for themselves, but they did not engage in day-to-day emergency management operations. Rosenberg also consulted with trustees about decisions to extend the school year and delay graduation.


By the middle of October, post-hurricane cleanup was continuing, but by and large most universities in Florida and Texas were conducting business as usual. On institutional websites, notices about closings and disaster relief funds had given way to news about research findings, fundraising events, and other activities that define an institution not under emergency conditions. Officials at the colleges and universities that faced Harvey, Irma, and Maria know other storms inevitably are in the future. FIU invited government officials, academics, and others to a symposium that will assess ways to improve hurricane preparedness based on lessons learned from Irma. In the meantime, FIU President Rosenberg already has some ideas.

A key takeaway from Irma is “making sure that as many of our buildings as possible are hardened to meet very stringent high wind and hurricane standards,” he said. FIU wants stronger buildings in part so it can better protect intellectual property, some of which the university lost during Hurricane Andrew. “We learned lessons there,” Rosenberg added, noting that some mission-critical buildings will get “double redundancy” in terms of generator capacity.

FIU had invested in satellite telephones to use in emergencies, but to improve communication in future events, it will consider buying portable cellphone towers. The school also will upgrade facilities at its emergency operations center to better serve staff who inevitably opt to stay on campus during hurricanes.

For Heston, Hurricane Irma underscored the imperative of communicating effectively— and regularly—during emergencies. “When you think you’ve said 15 times that the garages are closed Friday at 5 p.m., you probably need to say it 15 more times,” he said. “What we learned is that you have to be repetitive. You have to say it again and again. It is impossible to overcommunicate.” That’s a lesson that also resonates with Chancellor Khator. “Never, ever underestimate the power of communication,” she said. “You could have the very best plan, but if the people don’t know and you’re not able to reach them, that plan will have very little influence.”

Khator also offers two other takeaways from her institution’s experience during Hurricane Harvey. “Preparation and planning are very important, but don’t rely on that entirely because unprecedented and unplanned things are just the nature of any emergency—and will happen,” she warns. “So remain very flexible.” She also advocates testing emergency management plans in advance. “Test out your systems, and test out your team,” she said. “Make sure they understand what their role is and what will happen under very dire situations.”

Rosenberg, too, advises universities to plan for the unexpected. “Is your institution really prepared for seven, eight, nine days of extreme hardship? Figure out what it’s going to take to survive and recover after that, and practice that,” he said. With the memory of Irma’s impact still very much top of mind, Rosenberg advises a planning approach that essentially is hoping for the best but planning for the catastrophic. “Whatever you plan for,” he said, “prepare for something even worse.”