Evacuating Campus

As a number of college campuses are currently evacuating ahead of Hurricane Florence, I thought it might be useful to report on some findings from a study I did last year on the evacuation process at a residential college.

I surveyed undergraduates who had been under a mandatory evacuation from their college. The idea here was to gather information about the process with an eye towards improvement. As such, I asked about three phases of evacuating: 1) immediately after the decision to evacuate was communicated, 2) the evacuation itself, and 3) the return to campus life.

Here are some of the themes we saw.

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Advance planning is key. Although the college had communicated with students about the likelihood of a hurricane, and had very good policies and procedures to follow, few students actually had plans in place before the actual threat was imminent. As one student wrote: “[I was] scared because I did not have a plan in place for where I was going to evacuate to.” One recommendation was to incorporate an actual mock evacuation plan into first-year orientation.

Communication is necessary at all stages. Students appreciated frequent communication. The most useful communications they received, they told us, where from parents and other family and the college. They prefered email communication over other forms.

Be flexible. As the path of a hurricane can vary quite a bit from predictions, and the situations one can encounter on the way (e.g., traffic, full hotels, gas lines, etc.) are also constantly changing, many students changed plans. Some changed en route, with 20% telling us that they ended up at a different place than they have planned to be when they left campus. Half of them ended up staying at more than one place for the week that they were evacuated.

Keeping up with academics was a big concern. The biggest concern students had throughout the process was about academics, with 62% telling us they were either “extremely” or “very” concerned about this. Internet connections were spotty, and the general level of anxiety about being evacuated and what would be left to return to combined to make it hard to focus on school work that was required during evacuation. This continued to be a concern once back on campus, as 42% told us it was hard to get back into classes after returning, despite the fact that many felt that faculty were accommodating.

All in all, many students learned from the process. As one student told us “I realized how much independence I had gained, I realized I had the ability to communicate, and to get along with people I had not known previously.”

The survey helped shed light on the process…the good and the not as good…and the impact of evacuating. Evacuating ahead of a hurricane is an experience full of anxiety, but managing the process can reduce that anxiety for all involved.