Executive Vice President and Chair, Columbia’s Emergency
How did you first learn of the Katrina disaster a year ago, and what were your first thoughts?
Katrina first passed through Florida on August 25th, near Aventura where my wife and I have some family—so our thoughts were with them.
Following the news, I was amazed to see how quickly Katrina picked up strength as it moved across the Gulf of Mexico. As Katrina continued to accelerate, the news reports were increasingly ominous, and the risk to the Gulf Coast was clear. By the time evacuation orders were issued for New Orleans on the 28th, it seemed too late.
At the same time, it was business as usual for us at Columbia. First year move-in took place on August 28th and 29th ,so there were plenty of distractions. I do remember, however, that Katrina was part of many conversations during the weekend before move-in week.
You were given the rather daunting task of taking charge of coordinating Columbia's response to the catastrophe--particularly, figuring out how to admit displaced students. What were the main challenges you and other administrators faced?
I have been chairing the Emergency Management Operations Team (EMOT) since it was formalized following the events of September 11, 2001. The EMOT team has successfully worked through several emergencies including several weather-related events and the NYC Blackout of August 2003.
For the Katrina event, the main challenge was gathering data, managing communications and making sure Columbia’s message about accepting Katrina students was consistent. There were both formal and informal communications channels, and one of the tasks for the EMOT was to clarify objectives and messages.
To be sure we had our strategy clear, one of the first things we did was to expand the EMOT membership to engage our colleagues in admissions who were formalizing the arrangements for displaced students from the Gulf region—specifically, Tulane University. As you might expect, there are many issues that needed to be worked out: registration, payment or waivers of payment, housing, orientation, support services, etc. Our EMOT colleagues, however, worked with speed and true professionalism to anticipate and resolve any issues that arose.
I had contact with a few of the students themselves, mostly those from the NYC area who were unable to report to Tulane who were interested in taking advantage of the opportunity to study at Columbia for a term.
Now that a year has passed, what is the main thing you could say you learned from the experience?
The main challenge Katrina posed to the Columbia administration had to do with communications. Of course with any emergency, the quality and speed of communications is essential. But with Katrina, the actual emergency taking place in a remote location, and EMOT was dealing with people who came from an area that had undergone extensive damage to its infrastructure.
Many of those involved in the decision-making process, including those at the colleges and universities directly impacted, were working from alternate locations, making communications especially challenged. This meant that, for instance, Columbia had to come up with a policy for admitting students where no transcripts were available, or letters of standing.
The other important aspect of dealing with emergencies is the ability to have the right people in the room to make decisions. At Columbia, this is possible because we have many staff members who are great under pressure. We worked incredibly well as a team and were able to rely on each other to make good decisions and communicate those decisions to everyone else on the team. It requires many hands to work through a crisis, and last year’s experience showed that we have many hands at Columbia that are willing to help in any way they can.
Back to One Year Since Katrina
AT ISSUE is a series of features in The Record and on the web, intended to gather viewpoints from faculty and staff on current news topics.