Florence reveals need for better emergency planning at colleges

By: Kari Travis - Carolina Journal

RALEIGH — The N.C. Community College System should take notes during the aftermath of Hurricane Florence and make better emergency plans for future natural disasters, system President Peter Hans says.

While the University of North Carolina System kicked into emergency mode at the storm’s onset last week, NCCCS also worked hard to evacuate and secure at-risk campuses across its 58-college system. The storm affected 18 community colleges in Eastern North Carolina.

Seven of those colleges — Brunswick, Cape Fear, Carteret, Coastal Carolina, Craven, Fayetteville Technical Community College, James Sprunt, and Pamlico — were especially damaged. They will remain closed until at least Sept. 24, Hans said.

Another 14 schools are set to reopen this week.

Community college leaders began assessing damage Sept. 17. Evaluations are slow, and it’s tough to predict costs. Once the system has tallied the price of repairs, Hans will approach state leaders about funding “so that our students can remain on track to finish their education,” he said.

Affected colleges suffered flooding, leaks, and exterior building damage, but things could have been worse, Hans told Carolina Journal.

Still, the system’s emergency protocol has holes, he said.

NCCCS’ administrative office is the technology hub for dozens of community colleges. But the tech is outdated, Hans said, causing worry during the hurricane. A cloud-computing operation would secure communications.

“We’re actually asking the General Assembly for support on a new technology system. Not because of the hurricane — but it certainly reinforces the need. If our system goes down and colleges can’t communicate, it would be a mess.”

Colleges have payroll problems, too. Payroll is funneled through the system’s main office. Faculty and staff at evacuated campuses need their income — particularly due to evacuation expenses and potential home damage. But with technology down at so many schools, it’s nearly impossible to transmit information to NCCCS so the system can cut paychecks.

Class shutdowns are cause for worry, Hans said. Each college must figure out how to make up hours and cram in assignments. Some may add hours to regular classes, require online assignments, or cut holiday breaks.

NCCCS would benefit from a systemwide crisis-communication plan, Hans said, because “otherwise the colleges are flying by the seat of their pants.”

“I think once everything calms down and the hurricane season passes — hopefully without storms — we ought to have a session for all of our college presidents on lessons learned from this. Particularly for our new presidents. What went well? What was unexpected? What needed to be done differently next time?

“Let’s figure it out.”

Kari Travis is a staff writer for Carolina Journal.

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Kari Travis

Carolina Journal