Students dissatisfied with UT’s emergency preparedness communication amid inclement weather

Sheryl Lawrence

Editor's Note: This story first appeared in The Daily Texan's February 26 print edition.

While UT officials and offices prepared for the recent winter storm, some students felt communication and emergency resources were lacking.

UT did not lose power last week because the main campus has its own power grid, but some buildings did lose water and many students living off campus lost power and water for days. Throughout the week of Feb. 14, UT provided students with resources, such as warming centers, emergency housing and emergency funds. 

Jimmy Johnson, assistant vice president for campus safety, said before the storm reached Austin, the Office of Emergency Preparedness communicated with other UT departments to prepare buildings and areas such as warming stations.

Johnson said the office publishes information online and in a pocket guide that can apply to any emergency. When asked about UT’s winter storm plans, Johnson said the Emergency Operations Plan provides instructions for all kinds of emergencies. The plan does not contain references to winter storms but does provide information on what the University does in case of natural disasters.

“(UT was) sending texts and emails constantly about (the) status of school,” business honors sophomore Ashley Omehe said. “If (UT administration) would have been very adamant about sharing those resources through email and text as they were about updating us on the status of the campus … the situation would have been a lot better for students.” 

The Office of Campus Safety sent an email to students, faculty and staff about the possibility of inclement winter weather on Feb. 11. There were no more Universitywide emails from the Office of Campus Safety after the email sent on Feb. 11 about the winter storm and resources available. UT distributed information through Facebook and Twitter.

“We put a lot of consumable information out both internally and externally,” Johnson said. “It's up to the consumer at the other end to read that information.”

Sara Kennedy, director of strategic and executive communications for the Office of the Dean of Students, said in an email that 493 students emailed Student Emergency Services for support between Feb. 14 and Feb. 21. Kennedy said 128 students were referred by SES to receive temporary emergency housing. 

Ryan Colvin, assistant director of occupancy management, conference and event services for University Housing and Dining, said 108 students received emergency housing. Colvin said 53 students were housed in residence halls and 55 students were housed in University apartments.

Arleth Amaya, government and Mexican American studies sophomore, said she stayed in emergency housing from Feb. 16 to Feb. 23. She returned to her West Campus apartment on Feb. 23 when power and water were restored. Amaya said she received a single occupancy room in Brackenridge Residence Hall, and her roommate received a single occupancy room in a University apartment. 

“I feel like we would have been okay with double occupancy, which would have given other students the opportunity to also get emergency housing,” Amaya said. 

Colvin said SES and UHD worked to keep students together who were married and requested living together. Amaya said she requested a room with her roommate, but SES didn’t house them together since they are not married and of the opposite sex. 

SES director Kelly Soucy said students who reached out to her office were provided with information about warming centers and disaster assistance.

Kennedy said as of Feb. 19, SES distributed $16,250 in food support through the SES.

“When we started hearing that students were losing food because they were spoiled after X number of days without power, we started working with them to provide some emergency funds for food,” Soucy said.