What to Do When Severe Storms Strike

Advance warning, education, maintenance, personal responsibility and relationships with all stakeholders combine to reduce the impact of bad weather.

The threat of severe weather, especially tornadoes, is a real concern for campuses. Because we can’t change the weather, campuses must develop a mitigation and education strategy to reduce its potential devastation.

Warn Your Community Before a Storm Hits

Campuses across the nation have purchased a significant number of mass notification products in recent years. These systems allow institutions to send emergency notification to students, faculty and staff immediately through voice, text, E-mail and social networking sites.

While these systems have been used to alert campus communities of security-related incidents, most institutions also send emergency alerts for incidents related to severe weather due to their frequency. There is an opportunity, however, to enhance the effectiveness of severe weather emergency notification. Because the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) and local National Weather Service (NWS) Weather Forecast Offices offer multiple forecast products, campus officials can analyze those products and translate them into action-oriented advisories with instructions specific to a campus.

While emergency notification usually occurs at the cusp of the response phase, campuses can benefit from issuing formalized situational awareness hours and days before severe weather impacts the area. This provides the campus an opportunity to prepare the community and hopefully mitigate damage.

In a simple 1-2 page document, the community is advised of the situation, as well as everyone’s roles and responsibilities. The campus is also reminded of universal safety precautions. Because of this advance notice, when the campus community hears sirens and receives emergency text messages, everyone on campus should be more aware of the threat and far less likely to be caught off-guard.

Deploy Multiple Layers of Mass Notification

When an institution decides to engage in emergency notification, it must address coverage and consistency. The community must be able to receive the notification, and they must have confidence in the system’s reliability. Although students, faculty and staff at most institutions can sign up for voice, text and E-mail alerts, that alone leaves a significant communication gap: mobile phones aren’t always on and/or available. More specifically, students and faculty in class may have their phones turned off, and those working, exercising or walking outside may or may not be carrying their mobile device.

Thus, many campuses have installed and operate both an outdoor siren warning system and a system to alert classrooms and libraries by sending an emergency message to the screen of computers on campus.  There is an overlap in coverage in the three systems, and this helps to ensure everyone on campus is aware of impending severe weather.

Mitigate Property Damage With Appropriate Maintenance

A campus must also reduce the impact of severe weather on property. Most think of hazard mitigation as projects, one-time cures for a repetitive loss. In addition to those projects is general on-going maintenance. By ensuring that vegetation is trimmed regularly to remove dead and overhanging limbs, proactive campuses limit the amount damage from falling limbs and trees.

The potential flooding issues due to the high density of impervious surfaces on and around campus can be mitigated by routinely clearing leaves and other debris from streets and sidewalks. This allows storm water to drain freely, reducing the threat of urban flash flooding on campus.

While these strategies are often overlooked, they play a key role in reducing the impact of severe weather on campus.

Partner With Internal and External Stakeholders

Beyond mitigation strategies and notification systems, campuses must build collaborative relationships with a wide-range of internal and external communities. Examples of these partners include residence life, student affairs, parking and transportation, human resources, the National Weather Service, fire, police, emergency management and the American Red Cross.  It may also prove beneficial to work with neighboring institutions to share policies and procedures, as well as to set up mutual aid agreements.

Educating the campus community on various severe weather topics, terms and actions must be a priority and ongoing effort for those responsible for emergency preparedness and safety on campus.

It is not only important to educate the campus community on the various emergency notification systems, but it is equally important to educate them on the differences between a high wind warning, severe thunderstorm, tornado watch, tornado warning, winter storm watch, winter storm warning, flood watch, flood warning, and the like. Do not underestimate the lack of knowledge or misinformation that some members of the campus community have when it comes to the various watches and warnings.

The National Weather Service or Weatherbug can provide explanations of each term and how they might impact a campus.

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