New Campus-Wide Effort Prepares UH for Hurricane Season

For the first time this May, the University of Houston’s facilities management department hosted an all-day, campus-wide pre-storm emergency readiness exercise to better prepare the university to deal with a major storm.  The exercise was in preparation for the start of the Atlantic hurricane season, which begins June 1 and runs through Nov. 30.

Leading off the exercise, Jim Norcom of the University of Houston’s facilities management department directed participants to respond and plan as if they had just 36 hours to prepare the University of Houston (UH) campus for an approaching category 3 hurricane.

“In the past, we’ve done a very good job in responding to emergency situations, but if you take the opportunity to train, you have a better foundation as to how to react to it in the future when something goes awry,” said Norcom.

The drill brought together employees representing all UH entities that would be called up to respond in the event of a real storm emergency.

Hurricane Prep ExerciseThe UH emergency operations center was staffed, and six campus agencies participated, including the UH Department of Public Safety, emergency management, the fire marshal’s office and building coordinators.

“I think it’s critical to ensuring that the university can actually respond in a time of crisis, whether it’s a hurricane, a flood, a storm, or a shooting. How will we operate together? How will we communicate, and how will we respond as one team?” said Melissa Rockwell-Hopkins, executive director of the UH facilities management department.

Rockwell-Hopkins said the aim of the exercise was to get the different responding entities communicating, training together and problem-solving to get them thinking about logistics and possible challenges as they familiarize themselves with their various emergency roles, procedures and responsibilities.

“Part of it is networking with our different partners and knowing who are going to be our contacts when the emergency happens,” explained UH emergency management specialist Kelly Boysen.Hurricane Prep Drill

During the drill, the campus was divided into zones. Participants were broken up into teams, sent out into the zones and evaluated as they began inspecting buildings and grounds.

“The University of Houston is a city within a city. We’ve got a large number of students, staff and faculty who are depending on us and the campus to be prepared and have a plan. We want to make sure that we take those steps,” said Boysen.

In the field, the teams went through pre-storm check lists and looked at specific campus buildings, working to identify possible hazards. 

“We are looking for anything that could fly into a window or a door or could block an entry point. You want to make sure there’s nothing out there that’s going to potentially hurt someone or block their entry in or out,” said UH emergency management specialist Ginger Walker.

“We’ve chosen to address science and research buildings during this drill, those are the types of buildings that create the most risk for the university,” explained Rockwell-Hopkins.

Campus Hurricane PrepThe participants also brainstormed solutions, communicated using radios instead of cell phones and talked about lessons learned from past storms, such as Hurricane Ike.

“Power lines down, communications down, it’s actually very realistic that a lot of our cell towers would be down, so we might have to resort to communication by radio,” said Boysen.

“Certain areas around the campus are very low lying, so flooding is always a concern,” said Norcom.

Feedback and after-action reports from exercise participants are now being used to help strengthen the university’s storm response plans and procedures.

“When its affecting the whole region, all the different cities and counties in the area are all impacted as well, we need to be prepared in order to take care of ourselves as best we can without outside help,” said Boysen.

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