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Hurricane Isaac tests Loyola's emergency response plans

Loyola press release - September 7, 2012

In the days following Hurricane Isaac’s slow march across south Louisiana, Loyola University New Orleans administrators have been reviewing their response with a critical eye to ensure emergency preparations continue to evolve and meet the demands of each situation.

Loyola’s Emergency Management Team first assembled on Friday, Aug. 24 at 10:30 a.m., as Isaac was churning near the Florida Keys, to address the possibility of the storm impacting the greater New Orleans area. With five to six days out from landfall, computer models varied widely about where the storm was headed.

“One of the most difficult aspects universities face for hurricane response is deciding when to make the call to cancel classes and suspend operations, especially when the storm is days away and expected landfall locations vary widely on computer models,” said Loyola’s Emergency Manager Stephen Murphy. “Even as late as Sunday morning, Isaac was east of Miami and the cone of uncertainty was shifting widely across the Gulf Coast.”

Regardless of the uncertainty of landfall, the university began making its emergency preparations, from securing loose items on construction sites to making calls to emergency partners to clear the way for swift insurance claims. Departments across campus were put on notification to review their individual emergency plans and be prepared to enact them should the storm head this way. By Monday morning, classes had been canceled, faculty and staff across the university were prepping their areas for a hurricane, and many students began evacuating.

Beginning Tuesday, Aug. 28, New Orleans felt the first of Isaac’s high winds and heavy rains, which lasted for two days as the storm slowed to a snail’s pace after reaching land. High wind gusts remained until late Thursday, hampering Entergy crews’ responses and keeping the city without power, a state it had been in since early morning on Wednesday. These widespread power outages hampered Internet-based communications for several organizations in New Orleans including Loyola, but corrective measures were taken by Loyola’s EMT members during the storm to allow for daily updates on Loyola’s website, its emergency phone hotline and through its social media channels.

Approximately 600 students sheltered-in-place with the university and they, along with the entire city, were faced with a long, hot indoor campout. Fortunately, power was restored to portions of the university by Friday, and the Physical Plant team was able to run air conditioning to residence halls by Saturday. Students were served three meals a day, at least one of them hot, and resident assistants and co-curricular staff led students in a string of activities to help keep boredom at bay. University Police patrolled both of Loyola’s campuses 24 hours a day throughout the storm’s approach and departure.

When Isaac’s winds finally pushed through, Loyola was fortunate in that no one was hurt and that its property received minor damage. Two days of constant wind-driven rain resulted in 24 inches of rain on campus, several leaks and the loss of some equipment. Damage assessments continue, but the majority of the university’s water damage has been corrected with water extraction and dehumidifiers. Once power was fully restored on Sunday, Sept. 2, Physical Plant crews worked swiftly to bring all buildings back on line with fully-functioning life-safety systems in order to return the campus to normal operations.

Loyola’s Emergency Management Team continues to examine its response to the storm and has identified areas of improvement to fine tune its emergency processes and procedures for future events. Some of these include establishing set durations for suspension of operations, creating an on-site emergency operations center and providing redundant communications and Internet connectivity to core EMT members.

“Each storm we experience is different and offers its own unique challenges for a response team,” Murphy said. “For Isaac, its eventual stall made conditions impossible for power crews to work on downed lines until Thursday evening, ultimately extending the power outages. Our after-action reviews will illustrate ways to improve and allow for corrective actions to be incorporated into preparedness plans going forward.”