Colleges Rise To Fend Off Disasters
Community College Times
By Matthew Dembicki, Published June 18, 2008
Mother Nature challenged the Midwest with floods and northern California with wildfires, and in both instances community colleges closed campuses to help local emergency officials save people and property.
The floods in Iowa destroyed many towns, especially Cedar Rapids, home to Kirkwood Community College (KCC). But the college was spared because it’s located on higher ground.
But KCC closed down all locations to allow rescue workers and other officials to use them as staging areas. Campus parking lots and other KCC facilities were used by public safety, utility and other crews. Gov. Chet Culver used the campus to address the media regarding the floods and rescue efforts.
The college’s animal health department has been accepting many animals rescued from the flooded areas as well as an overflow from a local animal shelter. The Kirkwood Foundation also created two funds to help employees and their families facing hardships from the flooding and is accepting donations.
Hawkeye Community College (Iowa) also closed for three days last week because of rising waters. Although the campus was not affected, instructors and students often could not commute to the college because of closed bridges and flooded roads. And students and employees wanted to help in local efforts, said Mary Pat Moore, a college spokesperson.
"We needed to put all our manpower in sandbagging," she said.
The college also had to postpone a clothes and supplies run by its chapter of Phi Theta Kappa, the international honor society of the two-year college, to help victims of tornadoes that hit the area last month.
In Chico, Calif., a wildfire started last week that quickly spread, fueled by winds blowing at 30 to 40 miles per hour, threatening Butte College. The campus was immediately closed, and 3,800 fire and rescue workers used it as a command center to fight the blaze. Serving as a staging area may have helped save the college, as aerial photos showed a small tract of land not scorched by the fires—it was the college campus, which fire fighters were determined not to lose.
But it wasn’t easy keeping the flames at bay. The fire did consume 528 acres of the college’s wildlife refuge. And it came to within about 25 yards of the main administration building.
"We did not lose any structures, but fire came up to within yards of several buildings," Butte College President Diana Van Der Ploeg wrote in an e-mail to the American Association of Community Colleges.
The fire command had some 30 trucks surrounding the campus with trucks inside the campus, too, just in case, she said.
In all, the wildfire burned more than 23,000 acres and destroyed 72 structures—including employees’ homes—causing about $8.5 million in damage.
Van Der Ploeg credited disaster planning and training at the college for smoothly run evacuations and help with firefighting efforts.
"We were prepared and ready, and it all worked well," she said. "Our folks did a great job responding, aiding and pitching in wherever needed."
Fire officials said the college’s agriculture department saved the campus by hopping on bulldozers and digging fire lines around the campus.
In Manhattan, Kan., tornadoes ripped through the area causing more than $20 million in damage to the Kansas State University campus. Judy Stubblefield, a math instructor at Garden State Community College, was visiting the campus and huddled during the storm with other teachers in the basement of a residence hall.
When they emerged, they saw debris everywhere. It was the third time in a week-and-a-half that severe weather sent them into the basement, they said.
The tornadoes did claim the life of a community college student. Crystal Bishop, a 21-year-old student at Cloud County Community College, was killed during the storms.
Meanwhile, other community colleges are preparing for rough storms as hurricane season arrives on the East Coast. Lenoir Community College (North Carolina) last week held the state’s largest hurricane evacuation exercise. It was meant to gauge how well the state responds to the needs of medically fragile individuals, such as people in nursing homes, during a hurricane.
More than 300 college students played the roles of people needing to be evacuated. State standards call for setting up large medical shelters at community colleges.