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Disaster Management: Planning for Disasters

Posted by Dan Hurley on March 29, 2016 at 1:20 PM

We all know that disasters can come in all sizes and levels of severity, and each may be unique depending on your entity's location and function. While in a public school district, one of our most serious disasters involved a nor’easter over a veteran's day weekend. The storm ripped off a large portion of the school's northwest roof saturating and exposing several classrooms, and indirectly flooding all rooms on both floors. In another event on a much smaller scale, an incompatible metal plug in a middle school's boiler room on a pressurized line, released water over a three-day weekend. The released pressurized water stream shot into the pipe insulation, tore the jacket and insulation loose, and washed it to the floor drains, thereby clogging the drains. This resulted in severe flooding and damage to the hallways, classrooms and school gym. In both cases, the direct impact was possibly the closure of schools with lost teaching days. However, in both those events, potentially disastrous outcomes were mitigated by excellent organizational response. The facility maintenance staff was very familiar with these circumstances and mobilized quickly, with special contractors in place to assist in drying out the facilities. As such, both schools were opened on schedule with only some shuffling of classrooms.

In the occurrences above, the facilities, purchasing, and risk divisions were able to mobilize in a timely manner. In preparing for potential disasters, it is important to collaborate with a team or committee that reviews the potential for catastrophic events and consideration for mitigation needs. Selecting the members of the team is crucial. Each member should be representative of all areas of the organization, including purchasing (contracts and materials), food services, human services, education, planning, finance, payroll, risk & safety and particularly facilities maintenance staff.

Additional subcommittees may also be critical to the disaster planning process, such as a post-disaster assessment team that may include key facility staff, engineers, risk/safety personnel and the insurance carrier. The difficulty in establishing a plan is knowing where to start. However, with a well-established representative committee, discussing vulnerabilities (risk identification) and determining the prospect of occurrence and severity (risk analysis), you can rank your priorities and budget focuses when considering your strategies and implementation. One of the great advantages of a well-represented team is learning vulnerabilities that may not be readily apparent. For example, in our entity, there was the food service warehouse that maintained over $1,000,000 in food in a huge freezer but lacked an emergency generator. Aside from the financial loss, the loss of food that could be used to feed the public in the event of a significant natural disaster was a serious consideration; especially since schools are often used as shelters in those severe events, and the food could be used to feed individuals at the shelters.

Meeting continuously, making plans, drafting documents are essential components of the planning process. Additionally, reviewing scenarios is a fresh approach to evaluating how plans will be implemented. One scenario we had was, what if a high school was shut down indefinitely? The plan in that case was to utilize a sister school in shifts – essentially two school days every day - something I experienced for 3 1/2 years in Northern Virginia due to the explosion of DC suburbs. Loss of a school is a very real possibility, as is evidenced by tornado-related school losses in the Midwest. For example, Louisa County in Virginia sustained a high school and middle school loss due to the infamous Virginia earthquake.

 ‘What if’ scenarios are an excellent method of looking at or developing effective response actions. During a PRIMA board meeting in Florida, the host city had to ban water use for 48 hours. Due to a rodent chewing through an electrical line, the switchgear failed and untreated water ran through the system. The entity had to get the word out quickly and initiate an appropriate plant response. This is a perfect example of how a minor event, like a squirrel, can lead to a catastrophe.     

I would be interested in learning how other entities have developed their disaster plan teams and implemented their own scenarios or real responses. How have you developed your plans, scenarios and what have your experiences been?