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Business Officer Magazine
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Vantage Point

Spotlight on an institution in one of the constituent groups: small institutions, community colleges, comprehensive/doctoral institutions, or research universities

By Sara Winchester

Hurricane Turns the Tables on Risk Management

When Hurricane Sandy hit the New Jersey coastline on Oct. 29, Ocean County was ground zero. Fortunately, Ocean County College (OCC) is located on high ground and the campus experienced minimal damage. However, that was not the case for many of our students and staff, who live in coastal and waterfront areas that endured massive flooding, downed trees, and widespread power outages caused by powerful winds and an unprecedented 13-foot storm surge.

While the hurricane delivered a powerful blow to Ocean County, we learned a great deal about crisis management—but not in the way I would have anticipated. The most important lesson we learned was that we needed to be there for our employees and students, in the midst of the chaos.

Unexpected Closure and Crisis

On Friday, October 26, senior leadership decided to close the college for two days in anticipation of the storm. My biggest concern was meeting the payroll schedule, and staff worked over the weekend to make that happen. We had no idea that the college would not reopen until November 12.

Meanwhile, most OCC staff had no power at their homes, and the president's leadership team (PLT) communicated via cell phone. We first tried to contact our respective staff members, eventually learning that the homes of 32 of them had been lost entirely or were too damaged to live in. When we began hearing from students in similar situations, our focus changed from "How quickly can we reopen?" to "How can we help?"

Ocean County College students assist with cleanup in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Dealing With Immediate Need

The team created a disaster relief fund for students and staff, which trustees unanimously approved and to which they personally donated, as did each member of the PLT. We posted the request forms, and the response was immediate—and heartbreaking. Here are excerpts from actual student requests for assistance:

"I lost everything I owned. If it wasn't swept out to sea, it was destroyed from the four feet of water that came into my house. All of my textbooks were destroyed."

"I am a single mom with a 5-year-old girl and 3-year-old son. I don't have money for gas to get to classes; we lost all our food due to the power outage; and I lost my laptop, which had all my work on it; my books and notebooks. ... I don't know what to do right now; I am just overwhelmed."

Replacing and Readjusting

By the end of January, the relief fund had raised over $23,000 dollars. We used the money to purchase gas, grocery, and cafeteria gift cards, which were distributed to staff and students-making sure we provided something to all displaced employees, regardless of whether or not they asked for assistance. (Go to www.ocean.edu/sandy/index.htm to see a list of other resources.)

  • School supplies. The college-run bookstore distributed donated school supplies and established a textbook loan program to distribute at no charge 171 books to 68 students. The vendor for lab kits required for online science courses replaced the lost $200 kits at no cost.
  • On the move. Many students were forced to relocate to FEMA hotels or to relatives' homes outside the area. We established an online bulletin board so students could assist each other with housing and ridesharing and our president, Jon Larson, provided a room to a student.
  • Emergency loans. We established an interest-free emergency loan program a week before the college reopened. Full-time employees could borrow up to $10,000, and part-time employees up to $1,000, for storm-related expenses. The trustees approved the use of auxiliary funds for this purpose, and 21 employees participated in the program. 

The college was an unwavering presence throughout the two-week closure, with payroll posted on time, student refunds processed, our Web page updated, and our e-mail and emergency contact systems functional. This outstanding response was made possible only through the efforts of dedicated employees, many of whom continued working while the college was closed.

Despite the financial uncertainties created by Hurricane Sandy, the college's genuine caring has resonated with employees and students alike and proved that it's not all about the money at Ocean County College.

SUBMITTED BY Sara Winchester, vice president of finance and administration, Ocean County College, Toms River, New Jersey