As Hurricane Florence barrels toward the Carolinas and Virginia, colleges and universities there were underway with emergency preparedness plans. Perhaps the biggest factor ahead of the expected storm: safely evacuating students.
"With 25,000 students and over 3,000 employees, we look much more like a small town than we probably do the average college campus," Old Dominion President John Broderick said. Although the storm isn't expected to hit until late Thursday, the university, which is located in a low-lying area of Norfolk, Virginia, canceled classes beginning Tuesday and required the campus to be evacuated by 4 p.m. that day. The university has about 5,000 students living on-campus.
Old Dominion was among several universities the Southeast that cleared out their campuses of students, faculty members and non-essential staff early this week. Many other residential and community colleges in the region have canceled classes and other campus activities.
"The sun was out and it was perfectly clear at the moment, but we weren't making the decision based on yesterday and today but what tomorrow and beyond will look like," Broderick said.
Evacuations are a critical, often clear-cut early step in a campus' response to a massive, potentially life-threatening weather event. As the aftermaths of previous storms indicate, however, what happens next is less certain. Following Hurricane Harvey in 2017, many students and their families in Texas faced damage to their homes and property, experiencing financial and housing insecurity as the region assessed damage and began repairs. The emotional burden can be significant.
Halting instruction so early in the academic year also stands to impact graduation rates, students' education costs and their access to opportunities such as internships and jobs. The Houston Chronicle reported that many colleges offered financial assistance to students in need of relief after Harvey.
Other challenges administrators acknowledged included reminding off-campus students to mind evacuation notices and ensuring students who opt to evacuate themselves — which constitutes the majority of students at colleges we reached out to — do so safely.
Evacuating on-campus students to safety
Less than a year ago, the University of North Carolina Wilmington was facing a very different kind of hurricane. Operation Zephyr, a mock storm designed to test the university's ability to respond to a catastrophic weather event, tasked officials with actions such as relocating students, transferring records and protecting campus infrastructure.
Ahead of Florence, those lessons are being put to the test under real-world conditions. UNC Wilmington closed campus at 5 p.m. Tuesday, requiring students to evacuate by 8 a.m. that morning. An emergency services website was put up in place of its regular website.
Nine students of its roughly 16,000-student population were evacuated to UNC Asheville, one of whom was picked up by local family there. The Asheville campus, which is roughly 350 miles by car from Wilmington, is expecting three additional UNC Wilmington students. All 11 will live in on-campus apartments made available from current inventory. UNC Asheville issued the students an access card making campus spaces such as dining halls, the library, student recreation events and fitness facilities available to them.
Old Dominion evacuated roughly 40 students, many of them international students, to hotels elsewhere in the state.
The College of Charleston also issued a mandatory evacuation, sending more than 75 students by bus 100 miles inland to the University of South Carolina, in Columbia, where they will have full access to housing, meals, workout facilities and campus activities, a campus spokesperson said. Of the university's 11,000 students, roughly 3,500 live in on-campus housing. One-third of students are from out-of-state or are international. The college closed its campus Tuesday.
Coastal Carolina University evacuated roughly 50 students to Clemson University, about 270 miles northwest of its campus, Tuesday. In the days leading up to the storm, residential advisors held mandatory meetings with students. Coastal Carolina students fill out a personal evacuation plan at the beginning of the year, notifying the university of whether they might need evacuation services in the event of the storm. Students were encouraged to make sure their plans were current ahead of Florence.
In addition to their evacuation plan, at the beginning of the academic year incoming students are also given a "go bag" and a list of supplies to have in their dorms, said Carissa Medeiros, Coastal Carolina's emergency management director. The bag includes a paper preparedness guide "for when the power goes out and your cell phone dies and you can't Google what to do."
The university also provided free shuttles to the Amtrak station and the local airport for students choosing to evacuate themselves.
Keeping communication open
Virginia Wesleyan University, in coastal Virginia Beach, is not evacuating students but canceled classes. Students can stay in their assigned dorms through the duration of the storm, though campus officials encouraged those who have family or friends within a "commutable distance" of campus and can get there safety to do so.
"Of our 1,600 students, we are expecting about 250 of them ... aren't leaving for one reason or another," said Keith Moore, vice president for student affairs. If an evacuation becomes necessary, Moore said, the university has an agreement with Randolph-Macon College, in Ashland, Virginia, about 110 miles northwest of Virginia Wesleyan, to take about 100 students.
To keep in touch with students, parents, faculty and staff — particularly those allowing students to remain on campus — the colleges are relying on a combination of emergency alert systems, other digital communications, social media and mass media. In-person communication was an important part of the lead-up to evacuation, Old Dominion's Broderick said.
"I spent a good amount of my own time on Monday night going around the residence halls to wish parents and students a safe trip home and to remind them that there's going to be lots of other people [on] the roads," he said. "I must have had a dozen different students tell me to be safe as they were leaving."
The colleges that are evacuating are keeping a small crew of facilities and security staff as well as top administrators and other essential personnel on campus for the duration of the storm. In addition to evacuating students and staff, colleges are moving airplanes, research equipment and other assets, and are even putting some of it to work monitoring the storm, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports.
"This is not the first time we've done this," Coastal Carolina's Medeiros said. "We've had practice, we have been able to refine the processes but the only reason this works is because we work together as a team."