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This year took me by surprise, as I know it did for many of my colleagues and it was all about water. First came Hurricane Irene and then Tropical Storm Lee. Each September the Outdoor Action Program at Princeton University sends out over 1,000 students (800 freshmen and over 200 trip leaders) on our six-day outdoor orientation program. This year we had 95 trip groups out. This is the single largest program in the country; that is no one else sends out as many people at once as we do. In this post, for my friends and colleagues, I want to share my Lessons Learned, some old, some new about relocating over 1,000 students from a weather calamity in hopes that it is beneficial for your program..
In order to handle the logistics and the need for emergency response, I've built an extensive backend logistical structure (See Running Mega Programs 1 and Mega Programs 2 and Mega Programs 3 for more information). For each busload of students in the field we have at least one Support Team stationed nearby. This is a pair of students in a minivan staying in a motel near the trip area. They provide transports for minor medical issues, drop off water for groups in dry periods and resupply groups with equipment. Trip groups carry satellite or cell phones (depending on their location) to call out in the event of an emergency and they turn on their phones at 12:00 PM and 6:00 PM so that we can contact them if there is an issue. On campus we have a fully operational Command Center with a group of over a dozen volunteers who staff banks off phones, laptops, a large TV monitor hooked to a laptop, access to online trip routes, and participant lists and map boards of each area. This structure has served us well over may years.
This year was something different altogether. September is hurricane season so with our trips stretching from Virginia up to Vermont I am always tracking storms developing out in the Atlantic because of the potential for impacting our trips. So when Hurricane Irene approached the east coast at the end of August, I was on alert even though it was scheduled to hit New Jersey on Sunday, August 28 and our trips didn't leave until Sunday, September 4. Well Irene did hit and caused a shutdown of a number of our pre-trip training events since air and train transportation was significantly disrupted on the east coast for several days. Sunday brought tropical storm force winds and heavy rain to New Jersey leading to major power outages and significant flooding. It had already been an incredible wet summer in the east so the ground was already saturated before Hurricane Irene hit.
That's my First Lesson Learned--it's not just the big weather event like the hurricane, it's also the rest of the weather context that's been in play for the previous weeks or months. As you look ahead to your program planning, keep an eye on the meta-weather picture over the last month or more. Has it been an exceptional wet period? Has a drought been in place for months or longer? These longer time scale weather events can play a big role. In New Jersey, for example, the ground saturation was so bad with the wet summer that when Irene hit large trees were toppled over from the roots from a combination of super-saturated soil that could no longer support the root system and high winds that simply pushed the trees over. Earlier this summer a sixteen-year-old died on another organization's summer wilderness program in the Wind River Range when a dead tree toppled as students were hanging a bear bag. Certainly in the past I wouldn't have thought to warn my leaders about trees simply toppling over from saturated soil, but with this mega-saturation event, it was a real possibility - Second Lesson Learned - mega-weather events bring up new safety risks that may be outside of our normal "risk radar." While flooded streams and dangerous river crossings were in my mind all the time, I now add toppling trees to the list.
While Hurricane Irene cleared out of New Jersey on Monday, August 29 much of the state was in transportation gridlock until Tuesday, August 30. Downed trees and powerlines, flooded roads, closed airports brought transportation to a near standstill. As Monday wore on I began reviewing our status and checking the storm's impact on the various trip areas we were sending trips to. As I watched the news about how badly Vermont had been hit by the storm and the incredibly flooding and road damage I started thinking about our busload of students heading up there and began tracking down road closure information. Third Lesson Learned - the National 511 System. The Department of Transportation has a national 511 information system set up to provide realtime traffic information including road closures. Each state's Department of Transportation manages and implements their own online system. Start with www.fhwa.dot.gov/trafficinfo/index.htm. You can then drill down by state and it will link you to the State 511 Website. So I looked at Vermont and saw Rt. 9, one of our major trail access roads to the Appalachian Trail - closed due to flooding damage. I also used a free Website Sigalert.com. By default it is city-based but you can pick a nearby city and then scroll the map to see road closures and problems.
Emails from colleagues in college outdoor programs like John Abbott at the University of Vermont and contacts with the Green Mountain rangers brought the bad news, the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont was closed with a $10,000 fine for entering. So five trips cancelled on Monday, August 28. The news went from bad to worse. Flooding and catastrophic road damage in the Catskills resulted in the closure of the entire Catskills Park - 12 trips gone. Major flooding on the Delaware River washed away most of the riverside campgrounds. The National Park Service closed the Delaware River Corridor and all trails in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation area - 13 trips gone. The Housatonic River in Connecticut flooded washing out sections of the Appalachian Trail in the southern part of the state (5 trips gone). Seven Lakes Drive in Harriman State Park in New York had was damaged by flooding, the park was accessible from the northern entrance but officials decided to close the park - 5 more trips gone. All told we lost 40 trip routes in about 48 hours and had to replan trips to new locations in just 5 days. [For the record what I was dealing with was an inconvenience as
compared to the personal tragedy, loss of life and property that victims
of these storms had to endure.]
Fourth Lesson Learned - after a major weather event or national disaster, local officials have to allocate their resources sparingly. When they are stressed to the max just rescuing people from their homes, probably the last thing they want to add in is having to do Search & Rescue efforts on college outdoor orientation programs (or any other organized group) in the backcountry. So park closures can be due to major road closures in the area as well as damage to the park itself.
Fifth Lesson Learned - have more trips in your back pocket than you need. Earlier in the summer we had been scouting an area we used about 10 years ago. During the summer we decided that the 8 routes weren't as good as the ones we had on the books so we didn't use it. We ended up bringing this area and other old trip areas back online. There were pluses and minuses to this approach. I had some familiarity with these areas but in the extremely short time span we had to bring these areas online, there wasn't time to fully develop emergency site plans (so later we had to do it on the fly).
After all this trip reshuffling the weather cleared, all our freshmen arrived and our trips departed campus on Sunday, September 4, a beautiful sunny day. Once they all got dropped off by bus on Sunday, I took my first small sigh of the week. They are on the trail. So now I and the Command Center staff needed to stay attentive and handle whatever came our way over the next five days. I continued to watch the weather carefully. Sixth Lesson Learned - have a good online weather site/service. I've been using Accuweather Premium for years. It costs $80/year and some might say why pay when you can get it for free. Well, great radar, good 15 day forecasts and the ability to save 10 trip regions to quickly see weather in that area is worth it for me. I'm also tracking things on my iPad and Lightning Finder is a great app to keep realtime track of cloud to ground lightning strikes. I was watching what was happening in the field and that helped me make decision.
I had heard about Tropical Storm Lee down in the Gulf but I didn't pay it too much attention since it was hitting Texas and Louisiana, way too far away for me on Saturday, September 2. Well, Lee had other plans. looking at radar on Sunday night I began to see a huge swath of rain heading north and east into the Mid-Atlantic and New England like a freight train that wasn't stopping. I knew the ground was already super-saturated so flash floods popped into my head.
Seventh Lesson Learned - you've got communication out, how's your communication in? As I said, all our groups carry sat or cell phones and we have a time to have your phone on. Part of this is to be able to communicate to our groups in a natural or national emergency or if there is some family emergency for one of the students (which we've had like a death in the family). I also have implemented a database system for automatically sending text messages out to all those phones. [It combines a database of all the phone numbers in Microsoft Access, along with some easy database programming and a third party software program called Total Access Emailer which does email merges from an Access Database.] This whole thing can be sent up to send out text messages which is what I did on Sunday night. I texted that there was significant rain coming and that people needed to be aware of potential flooding and check their weather radios for local details (all the groups carry a NOAA Weather Radio). One problem, that text went out on Sunday night, but phones didn't go on until noon on Monday. So from here on in our groups will turn on their phones first thing in the morning as well as noon and six to see if there is a text. By the way, lots of times a text message will go through when a voice call won't so having text message capability IN and OUT is key.
Here's what I was looking at on the radar. Scary looking isn't it. The first image is the storm track. The second shows the rainfall totals. It rained so much they had to restart the color shading at green.
Rain started slowly on Monday and was forecast to come down 4-6 inches a day for 3 days. On Monday the flash flood watches and warning started popping up for Tuesday. I looked at the pattern and made a big decision, bring people out. At first that started with Pennsylvania and Maryland tow areas right in the "eye" of Lee, then I expanded it to include Virginia and then Connecticut and Massachusetts as the storm move north and east. I sent a text telling groups that we were going to pick them up and relocate them, basically a precautionary evac. Eighth Lesson Learned - have an Evac Location for each day of the trip. If you have to pull everyone out of an area, it's a huge transportation issue. You want to have a spot on each days trip route where you know you can easily pick people up. If conditions are not dangerous, it's better for people to hike/paddle/bike whatever to those locations rather than have them pop out randomly on the trail someplace. Keep in mind that the leaders are the one experiencing the actual field conditions so they need to make the decision about whether your planned Evac point is viable, or will they have to cross three flood-swollen creeks to get there. I had Evac locations for all of our longstanding trips, but not for many of the ones we just replanned, so we did it on the fly for those areas.
Ninth Lesson Learned - Have an intermediate 'Rallying Point' I've known this one for a long time so it wasn't as much a new lesson for me, more of an 'I told you so.' For the areas that we've been using regularly for the past ten years we have identified in each region a relocation/evacuation rallying point--a state park with camping, an outdoor education center with cabins, etc. Someplace where we could move groups as an intermediate site in case of a major weather event. I had these lined up for our longstanding routes, but didn't get those worked out for the 40 replacement routes. Why is this important? You'll see. Many of the places that our trips go are 5 or more hours from New Jersey. Something I've known for years is that bus drivers are limited by Department of Transportation regulations from driving more than 10 straight hours. So a number of our bus driver who dropped groups off on Sunday, had to stay in a motel Sunday night since they couldn't drive back the same day. Well, that also meant that in order to pick up all our waterlogged groups they could not drive from New Jersey, pick the groups up and get back to New Jersey on the same day. That meant we had to relocate 1,000 people to an intermediate site and then bring them back the next day. That's the reason for knowing where these "rally points" are ahead of time. For example, in Shenandoah National Park, we moved everyone to Big Meadows Campground in the park. So do the research and have these locations tagged ahead of time. Talk to the camps, state parks, rangers, etc. and ask them if the could handle 50 people or however many in an emergency evac. Then you just have to activate this emergency relocation plan.
So we got our people out to their intermediate sites. It was a challenge because I had 22 buses reserved for Friday, the day the trips were supposed to return and suddenly I called our bus company and asked for 22 buses on Wednesday. Tenth Lesson Learned - have a great relationship with your transportation provider - build it ahead of time. We have a really good relationship with our bus company Coach USA. Because they are in the business of keeping their buses on the road, they didn't have 22 buses and drivers. Just 9 they could give us with 24 hours notice (remember the 10 hour driver rule?). So I took the nine buses and worked out a way to have them drive out, pick up all the groups and ferry them to the closest state park, motel, etc. and then go back and get another load and got it all done in under the 10-hour driver limit. Being able to talk directly to Zarco the bus dispatcher was key.
Eleventh Lesson Learned - have good transportation software. There are lots of products out there - online like Google Maps or software products like Microsoft Streets and Trips (which I use). None are perfect, especially when you are dealing with buses since consumer software ignores things like bridge weights and overpass heights, but they are better than nothing. Since I already had all my original bus drop-off points saved out in Microsoft Streets it was a fairly quick job to run directions for the drivers to go from Evac pickup locations 1, 2 and 3 to the motel and then back to locations 4, 5 and 6. It saved me hours of time trying to communicate with the bus dispatcher when I could just email him a PDF of the bus pickups. There are software products built for commercial trucking fleets that do know things like bridges and overpasses and route trucks (and buses) around them. Next year I'll sign up for a 30 day free trial of PC*Miler|Web and see how that works for bus directions.
So we got over 1,000 people relocated to intermediate motels and campsites (no don't ask me about how much this all cost). We got a second wave of buses out to join the 9 buses and we got everyone back to campus, dry and happy on Wednesday and Thursday. I have so many people to thanks for pulling this off and getting everyone back safety. The tremendous student leaders who used great judgment to keep things under control. Our Support Teams in the field who did an epic job of picking up groups and getting them to buses. To the superb Command Center Team who stayed on the phones for 16+ hours a day working all the pickups. To all the administrators and staff at Princeton who figured out how to feed people when then got back to campus and came up with fun activities for our groups to do so they could continue to function in their small groups until the scheduled end of the program. Twelfth Lesson Learned - develop your campus network ahead of time. So when BIG things happen you have the relationships built to get the help you need. Thirty years of being at Princeton means that I have a great set of colleagues who I could call on and they all came to my aid. Thirteenth Lesson Learned - what is your campus emergency response plan and how does your trip fit into that? Like many campuses Princeton has an Emergency Response Team (ERT) to deal with some major campus calamity, a dorm fire, school shooting etc. Know what that plan is and talk to those people to know when, if your program is dealing with a major event, that event hits the threshold to initiate the college's ERT. They can get things done that you can't simply by virtue of their being activated and having mega resources at their disposal. Last Lesson Learned - have a great staff team - Leaders, Command Center and Support. It makes all the difference.
I don't want to make it sound like these trips were terrible. On the contrary, while my week was terrible, the students bonding incredibly well. They had enough challenges to bring them together, not so much that it broke them apart. Making the decision to start to pull the trips out, knowing that it could not be all done in 24 hours, meant that we did get them out before conditions got really bad. Like I said the leaders did a great job and when I saw all the students in the main campus auditorium on Thursday night they were totally pumped about their experience. As I've said, it was the best possible outcome from a bad situation. We successfully achieved the goals of our outdoor orientation program.
And I finally got some sleep. Here are my Lessons Learned. Pop yours in the Comments Section or contact me about submitting a Blog entry.
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