By Mary Kate McGrath - October 7, 2019
In September, Hurricane Dorian hit North Carolina and South Carolina, resulting in school closures across the state. Among the 800,000 people under evacuation order were students attending college as well as university faculty and staff along the coast. Closures were put in place at the College of Charleston, Coastal Carolina University, the Medical University of South Carolina, and University of South Carolina Beaufort. Across the two states, Hurricane Dorian hit the coast with strong winds and heavy rainfall, forming small tornadoes and resulting in widespread power losses and flooding, according to the New York Times. For emergency managers, helping students recover from the physical destruction of such an event, as well as manage the emotional toll, is essential as campus life resumes.
Amid the new normal of climate change, college and university campus officials are likely to face an increase in severe weather events. For many campuses in high-risk areas, earthquakes, fires, floods, or tsunamis can potentially disrupt campus operations. Natural disasters can cause major upheaval in a student’s education, result in physical destruction or loss of property, and take a major toll on their mental health. In addition to disaster prevention and response, emergency managers should provide a guide for students recovering from a severe weather event, connecting them to support resources. By providing immediate support following a severe weather event, safety managers can ensure students have the what they need to manage their social and emotional well-being and stay on track with their education.
Many campus safety teams have a plan in place for the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster. Creating a comprehensive emergency plan that accommodates for adequate emergency communications, evacuation protocol, or other best practices disaster response is essential. Proactive emergency planning is critical for considering the long term effect natural disasters can have on a community of students.
Education leaders must also work to mitigate the social-emotional and academic repercussions of a major disaster. Students may struggle with the disruption to their education - college and university life can be stressful as is, and exposure to trauma, financial hardship, and degree continuity concerns can compound mental health difficulties. Create a guide for students about how to access disaster relief resources such as food, shelter, or water, but also support their long term academic success by providing academic or financial assistance and mental health support.
Following a tornado, hurricane, earthquake, wildfire, or other natural disaster, college or university students will need to manage their physical needs for food, water, or shelter. A mass notification system can help campus safety managers keep the community informed as a severe weather situation develops, allowing administrators to reach students via text, email, or voice call. The tool can be used to communicate evacuation orders, as well as help students seek appropriate transportation or shelters. Following a disaster event, a mass notification system can also be used to connect students with relief organizations distributing food or water, and to inform the community of resuming operations for the school.
In 2010, a study conducted on the psychological impact of from Hurricane Katrina found that university students displaced by the hurricane suffered more trauma exposure and greater subsequent distress, as well as higher-rates of PTSD and depression. More significant, depressive symptoms and post-traumatic stress symptoms were onset at the trauma exposure and distress caused by the hurricane, which was one of the third-worst disasters in the United States since 1900. The study emphasized that college students are more susceptible to developing psychological symptoms following a disaster due to the high academic and social demands of the environment and potential for disruption in their familiar support networks.
News reports tend to emphasize the physical destruction or loss following a disaster, but these situations take a significant toll on student’s emotional well-being. Students should be able to seek out a variety of support networks following a natural disaster, which will help to cope with the emotional repercussions of living through a traumatic event and find a community of individuals who understand what they’ve experienced.
Make sure that students know that it’s normal to have difficulty managing emotions after a life-changing disaster. According to Mental Health America, common reactions to a natural disaster include disbelief or shock, anxiety about the future, disorientation or difficulty focusing, nightmares or recurring images of the event, feeling powerless or depression, changes in appetite, physical pains, difficulty sleeping or falling asleep. The organization offered general tips for coping, outside of seeking professional mental healthcare, and these include:
Disruption in academic schedules can pose a serious threat for student continuity. If a student’s education is disrupted, they may be unsure how to continue their degree-granting program. Following a natural disaster, especially if a school has undergone evacuation orders or closures, administrators should make the plan to resume their education clear.
Make sure that a college or university academic advising center is prepared to help students following a disaster. If students are given latitude to make up academic material following the course and shift their course schedules, they can.
Following a disaster, students may be dealing immediately with the physical or emotional concerns, but financial considerations can also pose an issue for students. It’s important that a campus community knows there are options following a disaster - from government assistance to disaster relief funds, there are ways students can subsidize their education amid post-disaster financial struggles.
Students should be made aware that many colleges and universities have funds available to help students recover financially. If these resources are not available on campus, outside organizations often provide financial or housing assistance for individuals struggling in the aftermath of a disaster. These organizations include Habitat For Humanity, which offers housing for those who lost housing following a severe weather event, as well as government resources such as CollegeBoard, National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, or Federal Student Aid. Scholarship America manages a natural disaster relief fund which works with post-disaster students considered low-income to help them stay in school and continue their education.
The Disaster Distress Hotline is a national hotline providing year-round crisis counseling. The number is toll-free, multi-lingual, and available 24/7 to people seeking crisis support service via telephone (1-800-985-5990). Callers and texters can reach trained professionals from a network of crisis centers around the country. Over the phone, call takers direct students to information on common stress reactions and healthy coping, and can refer individuals to local disaster-related resources for follow-up care and support.
Technology can play a key role in helping students access resources on a college or university campus following a natural disaster. A campus safety app can help students recover following a serious severe weather emergency, whether they need to connect with campus safety teams or access mental health resources. The app houses a content portal with the on-the-go resources vital in an emergency, such as natural disaster procedures and key support resources which can be shared in a configurable content library by administrators. An easy-to-find call directory acts as a list of important numbers which campus safety teams can update in real-time during an emergency. For students looking to reach out for help, whether it’s from the academic advising center or a counseling center, this tool can be extremely valuable.
During a severe weather emergency, the app also lets students connect directly with campus safety or local law enforcement, increasing the speed of emergency response by providing location data which would not otherwise be available to dispatchers. When a student dials 9-1-1 from the personal safety app, a security team is notified through a security management console, empowering swift and direct response. In a situation where students may need critical resources such as food, water, or shelter, this increased response capability is essential.
Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.