Record rainfall in October 2015 caused widespread flooding and devastation in Columbia. UofSC staff members, including Terry Perkins, director of University Housing facilities, Kim McMahon, director of campus life and the Russell House University Union, and Deborah Beck, executive director of Student Health Services, worked around the clock to ensure student safety and to provide essential services. Essay invited the Student Affairs and Academic Support leaders to discuss their experiences.
Forecasters were calling for up to about 12 inches of rain over the weekend. That ended up being only part of the story, but any heavy rain can be a problem for flood-prone parts of Columbia and campus. What did you do to prepare?
Terry: We started to visit all of our sites looking at drainage issues, roofs, other things that could be problematic. We knew the buildings where a driving rain could be problematic, so we extended downspouts out to the surface drains. We also cleared surface and underground drains that clog over time. We asked students to pick their stuff up off the floor because with a driving, persistent rain we were going to have some water intrusion. We put three restoration companies on notice so they would be ready to provide staffing and equipment to dry out buildings that were hit harder. I had staff who would stay on site with me overnight. Under Dr. Kirsten Kennedy, the executive director of housing, we take this very seriously and have had a lot of ongoing discussions and planning.
Kim: Much of our work on the front end involved shuffling events. With the pending rain,
an admissions event had to be canceled, and we started shuffling events Thursday and Friday.
I left town Friday morning with four students for a conference in Raleigh. Friday and
Saturday didn’t seem problematic, but Sunday morning about quarter to 7, my phone rang
from the building coordinator because power was out at the Russell House. So my day
started with getting the students I was
traveling with back to N.C. State. Then I was working on flood response from Raleigh, then from Charlotte because we couldn’t get home.
Deborah: All of our medicines and vaccines have to be refrigerated, and we had to prepare
for losing power. We immediately
went to our emergency plans and our drills. We made sure we had paperwork and forms to see patients. We printed copies of schedules so that we knew when students who were already scheduled would come in, and we’d know a little bit about their history. We tested our generator to make sure it was working and made sure that the life-safety equipment was attached to the generator. We made some choices about what should and should not be on the generators. Our main concern was
Kim: I think that was everybody’s because students still needed to live, eat and tend to safety and wellness. So we had to figure out a way to be open and rely on the infrastructure on campus to help us at least run our building.
Terry: Even though it wasn’t formally called a FEMA disaster, we all went to our training, our preparation. We were all looking at meeting the basic needs of the students.
What was that first 24 hours like for you?
Kim: I was on the phone securing hotel rooms for staff so that they could safely stay near
campus to run the building. My Student Life colleagues in Campus Recreation and the
Greek Village were all working on the same thing. The next piece was potable water for
students, so I had a number of calls with Kirsten Kennedy to find out how much water is
needed per person per day to meet health needs. Porta-potties, too, and food. We looked at
what was in the dining refrigerators that we could give to students, knowing that
if the power stayed out, the food would be wasted. So we gave fruit, yogurt, granola
worrying about the cost but about the comfort and safety of the students. There was very little concern in the first 24 hours about activities for students because we were focusing on basic safety and basic needs.
Deborah: We were open on Sunday. We didn’t have as many patients as usual, but we were open. I think we saw 10 or 12 patients with just typical cold and flu. On Monday we started seeing injuries in people who were getting out and doing things that they shouldn’t have been doing. Cuts, scrapes, stitches and things like that.
Terry: The pre-planning and preparation activities that we did to try to offset the impact
really helped. When we moved into
recovery mode, my colleagues in residence life took attendance in the halls to make sure we knew how many students were here and where they were. Resident mentors and residence life coordinators stayed, which made our jobs easier. We could move quicker, prevent damage and know that we could access student rooms to monitor for other problems. We were
fortunate to have enough staff not only ahead of the event but who stayed here with me throughout or were able to come back.
Deborah: We had students coming in asking what they could do to help. They saw us lugging water bottles around and asked where they could take them. It was nice to see everybody pull together.
Terry: We had three high rises where, because of the wind blowing rain against the windows, some water was seeping in. The students took it upon themselves to take action. That really, really helped us out.
Deborah: And our staff, too. For those who couldn’t get hotel rooms, we started looking at exam rooms for them to stay in. Not too many ended up staying the night, but they were willing to.
That was one of the remarkable things. It was exhausting. And many of the staff had already been on high alert working for days to prepare for the weather.
Kim: Something we learned very early across some key units in Student Affairs was about the
commitment we give and the role that we play. I think there’s increased recognition
that the Russell House is the center of fun and activity, but also that it becomes
the central place for information and service delivery. We managed the water distribution
distribution, knowing that other units needed to focus on other things. We got a chance to be really proud of our staff, but we
also learned about who is essential staff and what roles they play. There’s a different role in preparing for a crisis and being in a crisis.
After that initial 24 to 36 hours or so, after we figured out water deliveries and food service and porta-potties, we developed an unusual sort of routine. What did you tackle then?
Terry: It was recovery for us. We had damage, so our focus was trying to get students back in their rooms. So we were in there with our staff and contractors to make it safe. We had to be sure we made repairs and cleaned things up the right way so there wouldn’t be lingering problems. We had to make decisions to replace damaged materials quickly to get students back in safe places. And we had to deal with property that was lost — textbooks and other things. We wanted the physical things taken care of so students could get back in school and move on.
This was also around the same time that people really wanted to help. We had a number of students on campus and off who were still here, and Kim, you and your staff members coordinated their volunteer efforts.
Kim: At the same time the Student Life department was evaluating how we could connect
with the community, a student-led
initiative, UofSC Relief, had emerged. So they moved their operation to the Leadership and Service Center and through social media and web-based communication were able to deploy 1,000 people — a large majority of them students — to help in the community. And in the center we focused on establishing a long-term relationship with the United Way that would sustain beyond these efforts during the seven critical days of the crisis so that we could contribute to the ongoing relief. The service piece became a very important focus. You put the call out, and USC students are the first to respond and say they’ll help. Knowing that we all get a little stir crazy not being in our normal routine, it was important to have the Strom Thurmond Wellness and Fitness Center open so students could physically and mentally refresh. We were also preparing campus to reopen. Student Affairs staff led preparations not only in our buildings but also in some academic buildings. We were out
posting signs and bagging water fountains to help students understand and follow water safety guidelines. When the work evolved, many campus folks turned to Student Affairs. While it was exhausting, I’m proud of the caliber of our staff and knowing that their focus is on our essential role of student care and student wellness.
Deborah: The biggest thing for us was trying to fit all the patients back into the schedule. We had people who’d missed their appointments who needed to be rescheduled up against the next week of appointments. So we ended up cutting back appointment times a little to try to meet the need. A lot of students’ families lost things. The counseling center stayed open later in the evenings. We sent people to academic areas where a lot of students were affected. But when our water and power came back, we were just trying to squeeze people in.
Kim: We had a similar situation. I’d forgotten, but that Thursday when the building was open we had people realizing they might be able to squeeze in an activity or event, and so they came to us to help them find space. Homecoming completely changed. A major concert had to be moved to a new date. A lot of things that got rescheduled weren’t as successful because the nature of the momentum changed, and the students were changed when they came back.
Kim: The students who stuck around and were involved in service absolutely changed. Helping families pull photographs and toys and memories out of water and mud changed their lives. There were inconveniences, but once they had a moment to exhale, the students had a better context to know that they’re in a place to get an awesome education and awesome beyond-the-classroom experiences, as well.
Deborah: The students were very different. This generation’s anxiety level is already high because they’ve seen so much trauma, but this was another crisis, another disaster that they were exposed to. The anxiety was off the charts, and I don’t know that students have come down from that.
Did anything surprise you about the event?
Deborah: That it rained as much as it did was a surprise. But everybody coming together and working together wasn’t a surprise because I knew that I could rely on you guys.
There’s a saying about a crisis bringing out the best in people. You agree?
Deborah: I do. I think we have one of the best student affairs divisions in the country. We
all work together, and we’re all here
because we love the students.
Terry: From my staff to residence life to maintenance, the staff rose to the occasion. I didn’t see complaints. I didn’t hear excuses. I just saw people jumping into action to get a sense of normal back for the students. They were stepping out of their normal roles to do whatever it took to take care of things. Everybody that we needed, they were there. They might not have been there during the rain,but they were there.
That’s a good point: this was a long-term event. The rain ended, but the event lasted more than a week. So it was important to have different people do different things so that no one was completely exhausted.
Kim: But by the end of it, we were.
Terry: Physically and mentally.
Kim: If I had it to do over again, I would spare some essential staff so that everyone could
find some renewal time and be
recharged when campus reopened. That’s probably something we didn’t do well enough in our areas. And when the students got back, we went right into Homecoming and midterms and the normal activities of an October, which on this campus is very busy.
How have things changed for you since then?
Terry: We’ve had other events. It feels like one after another. And our staff, I think, have struggled with the stress of it all a little bit. But I look at my brother in Louisiana who lost his house in 9-10 feet of water in their flood, and when I look at that I can’t complain. It’s devastating to walk in and see your whole life, what you worked for, is gone.
Kim: I’m a USC alumna, but I didn’t grow up in this community and even after I graduated,
I never had a plan to return. But at this point last fall I’d been back at USC seven
years, and I don’t think that I had ever said out loud that I’d become a South Carolinian.
But sitting in Raleigh and watching what was happening and being on the phone, being
a part of solutions … I
became a South Carolinian that weekend. It was my community where all this tragedy was happening but also where all this good was coming from. When I got back to town, I could see that the situation was as bad as was being portrayed, but there was a lot more good than bad.