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Through the Storm: How ECU Survived Hurricane Matthew

January 13, 2020

Lauren Mink could feel the tangible Friday buzz in the air as she made her way across the campus of East Carolina University (ECU). It was September 30th, 2016, and the fall chill was beginning to set in.

Mink is the continuity and emergency manager at ECU. The job kept her busy; her superior retired in 2014, leaving Mink responsible for emergency operations planning, an emergency notification system, hazardous weather response planning and the training and exercising of plans. Mink kept the institutions’ plans organized with Kuali Ready, a software solution for continuity planning in higher education.

As Mink sat down at her desk that day, she checked the weather. But what she saw was far from an everyday forecast. The tropical storm over the Atlantic Ocean had shifted to hurricane status. She contacted the National Weather Service, arranged meetings with university communications, and mentally prepared for the challenging weeks ahead.

Preparing for Impact

Intensive preparations began on Tuesday, October 4th. Earlier that year, ECU had sent out an annual hurricane preparedness checklist. In preparation for Hurricane Matthew, the checklist was sent again. Other measures were taken including checking and securing equipment, replenishing supply stocks, and strong encouragement toward faculty to review their continuity plans and standard operating procedures (SOP) that were stored in Kuali Ready. Luckily for ECU, the hurricane was scheduled to make landfall on Saturday, the first day of a four day weekend. The majority of the university’s student body (near 29,000 students) already planned to leave campus. ECU encouraged students to depart early before the weather worsened.

On Friday morning, imminent preparations began. On campus, vulnerable areas were sandbagged and commonly flooded roadways and parking lots were closed. By Saturday, the county and city instated curfews and limited traffic on all roads. The community hoped for the best as it hunkered down to wait out the storm.

2. How often do you review your Business Continuity Plans (BCP) plans and what kind of review or approval process do you use?

This will vary with the institution and probably each department. We annually review essential personnel. Developing an actual BCP will often be difficult because of the distributed nature of higher ed research programs. Essentially each faculty member runs his/her own “business” and each “business” has different directions, different sources of revenue, and different timing of programs and events

Outer wall of a pub stating, Hurricane Party Inside.
The Storm

Hurricane Matthew hit ECU and Pitt County on Saturday evening. It caused power outages and downed trees throughout the state. By Sunday morning, the storm began to subside. The damage, however, did not. “We experienced flash flooding like we’ve never seen it before with any other hurricane or tropical storm,” Mink reported. Secondary rains upstream from ECU were more powerful than expected and caused the Tar River to overflow. Flooding across the county was so severe, in fact, that classes on campus were cancelled the week following the hurricane as multiple interstates and highways were deemed impassable.

The Aftermath

It took the county approximately one month to recover from the hurricane. The American Red Cross, The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the community worked together to provide food and shelter to those who were displaced by the storm. At ECU, recovery took roughly one week. Luckily, the campus did not suffer power outages; flooding, however, was extensive. The creek running through the campus rose 13 feet, covering the bridge above it and shocking all ECU employees. Dozens of trees were downed or severely damaged on campus including a giant 90 year-old scarlet oak tree. The oak was cut down and donated to the art department to be used for wood sculpting and to fire the kilns. The other trees were donated to art projects and additional uses on campus.

Man fixing a tree while riding a mechanical truck

Different types of emergencies were presented to the university in the hurricane itself, limited access to campus, and power outages in homes of staff. “Because we were adversely affected by the weather, we experienced different continuity events,” Mink explained. Fortunately, ECU had prepared for emergencies with readiness plans for 83% of its mission critical departments. They used Kuali Ready to create and update their plans, with a total of 52 plans in the continuity software solution. While most of the university staff had access to continuity plans during and after the storm, those in homes without power could not access the plans. Remarkably, even those staff members that could not see the plans seemed to know which critical functions they were responsible for and to whom they should report. Mink believes they knew how to respond because they had been involved in continuity planning for their respective departments.

Mink explained that the planning process was the most important factor in streamlining response and recovery. “I really am a believer that the process of planning is more beneficial than actually having a plan itself,” she said. Based on the events that followed the hurricane, ECU will update its readiness plans with more detailed emergency response items that include mitigative tasks to simplify its response to severe weather in the future.

About Kuali Ready

Kuali Ready is a cloud-based continuity planning solution designed specifically for higher education. It provides colleges and universities with a guided planning process and central access point to create, manage, and evaluate readiness plans for all departments.

About East Carolina University

East Carolina University is a public university located in Greenville, North Carolina. With service as the core mission of the institution, it aims to produce excellent students that will go forward to change their communities for the better.

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