Natural disasters drive need to update K12 emergency plans

More frequent and intense natural disasters require school leadership to address trauma and prepare for extended disruptions.
By: | Issue: February, 2019
January 17, 2019
natural disastersStorm damage—West Lumberton Elementary School in Lumberton, North Carolina, was completely flooded and permanently closed following Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

More frequent and intense natural disasters require school and district leadership to make plans to address trauma, harden school buildings and resume school routines as quickly as possible after a calamitous event.

To safeguard education communities from the effects of events such as tornadoes, hurricanes and wildfires, a district administrator may need to tap an employee or new hire who’s passionate about emergency management, says Shawn Streeter, a safe environment specialist for Poudre School District in northern Colorado.

“You must have a driver,” Streeter says. “Crisis plans are multitechnical writing materials. It’s easy to put them on the back burner when you have the day-to-day life of educating kids going on.”

Emergency plans for natural disasters

When devising emergency and recovery plans, administrators first have to consider the age of school buildings. Older structures have unreinforced masonry or a lighter frame construction, making them vulnerable to collapse.

Natural disasters can be classified as “low-probability, high-consequence” events because they can happen on “any given day” and cause major destruction, says Lori Peek, a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder and director of the Natural Hazards Center. Prevention and recovery plans should include:

Regular emergency drills. Conducted at least once at the beginning of the school year and once before spring, drills should identify shelter-in-place locations. In the event of an evacuation, everyone should be informed of safe routes, Peek says.

Safety education. Conduct preparedness campaigns, special events, classes and social media discussions to build a school and community culture of safety. These efforts also build buy-in for preparedness and response plans before a disaster strikes.

Emergency kits. Take inventory of emergency medical supplies, including AEDs. Identify staff with relevant training or experience in first aid, CPR, search and rescue, and mental health care or counseling.

Administrators should also create community communication protocols for a disaster, including plans for taking in students from neighboring districts.

In addition, leaders should know where they can get funds to fortify or retrofit school buildings, says Peek, who also served on the committee that wrote “Safer, Stronger, Smarter: A Guide to Improving School Natural Hazard Safety,” a Federal Emergency Management Agency report.

Developing foresight

Poudre’s administrators worked with city and county emergency management offices, the mental health department, and first responders to develop the technical aspects of a crisis plan, Streeter says.

They also tapped the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for information to determine which areas of the district faced the greatest weather dangers. Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools, a federal guide, was used as a template for forming incident response teams, identifying threats and hazards across the district’s region. Protocols for training staff and conducting periodic drills have also been developed, says Streeter.

For instance, FEMA advises school sites establish a first aid/medical team, a security and utilities team, and a fire suppression and hazmat team. Individuals or groups should be designated to handle communications, documentation, administration and accounting. Staff members assigned to these various elements can report to an incident commander. Individuals filling these roles can serve during the response and throughout the recovery period.

Flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey in Texas in 2017 led Humble ISD Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen to designate some schools as evacuation checkpoints and staging sites for first responders. School buses delivered food and supplies.

Having foresight certainly helps for preparation, but real-time circumstances may warrant a different response, Fagan says. Flexibility during natural disasters is key.

“All aspects of school safety, including weather, are based on what you learn has worked and what hasn’t worked,” she says. “You have your plans in place and hope that you never need them, but in the event something does happen, at least you’re not starting from scratch.”


Using schools as emergency shelters during a natural disaster

If schools become temporary evacuation shelters, consider these actions:

  • Plan ahead of time with key stakeholders on how the building will be operated and managed during an emergency.
  • Check with local emergency managers or shelter providers to determine how schools can be included in community recovery plans.
  • Negotiate formal agreements with shelter providers to address the transformation of school facilities into emergency temporary housing. Also discuss how to handle liability for damages, including cleanup, and how such expenses will be managed.
  • Establish a memorandum of understanding that specifies how school resources will be used during a crisis event.
  • If a school is turned into a shelter, it can delay students’ return to the classroom, which can prevent getting kids back to a normal routine—a key driver of recovery.
  • Develop an educational continuity plan in the event that schooling resumes elsewhere.