FEMA approves UMass’ hazard mitigation plan

By Shelby Ashline

(C. Holmes/ Flickr)
(C. Holmes/ Flickr)

After four years of coordinating with both the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the University of Massachusetts now has an approved hazard mitigation plan to help protect the campus from natural disasters.

The plan was officially approved by both agencies about a month ago, making UMass only the second university within New England to have a FEMA-approved plan, joining the University of Maine.

“We’re in select company of having an approved plan,” Jeff Hescock, director of University Emergency Management and Business Continuity, said.

According to Hescock, universities are not required to have specific hazard mitigation plans because they can follow the plans approved by their state. However, Hescock said the University wanted to be a “trendsetter.”

“We wanted to create our own hazard mitigation plan because really what it allows us to do is to develop very specific goals and objectives and mitigation measures for our individual campus,” he said. “And that’s what we did.”

The process began under Hescock’s predecessor Tom O’Regan, who organized the 40-member Campus Enterprise Risk Management committee in the spring of 2011.

The committee identified over 300 risks to which the campus is vulnerable. Each risk was assessed based on probability, financial impact, risk to the University in terms of its reputation, as well as threat to life, health and safety, security, and operational disruption.

Among the 20 top ranked risks, three were natural hazards: tornados (fifth), earthquakes (sixth) and hurricanes (11th). Storm water drainage was ranked 12th.

From there, the Campus Enterprise Risk Management committee created an additional 25-member Hazard Mitigation Planning Committee to address the natural hazard risks identified and to come up with a plan to present to the state and federal Emergency Management Agencies.

The University received a grant for $143,000 to develop the plan, which took roughly two years to draft and involved hiring a contractor to assist them in assessing campus buildings, Hescock said. The plan would need to be approved first by the MEMA and then by FEMA, followed by editing in order to obtain approval.

Now, the approved plan – which will need to be renewed after five years – resides in a roughly 500-page binder in Hescock’s office. It includes 24 recommendations for the campus that are divided into four categories: management and communications, storm water, planning and power.

Hescock said that it is unlikely that all 24 recommendations will be followed as some projects would cost as much as $40 million to complete. However, he adds that there are plenty of low cost projects as well, and the University received two grants for $387,000 for the plan.

Roughly a quarter of the recommendations have already been completed, Hescock said, including the installation of three emergency generators during the time that the plan was under review.

Much of the plan is a culmination of historical data, looking at trends over the years and seeing what responses to natural disasters have worked well.

“The past usually predicts the future in a lot of senses,” Hescock said.

The plan also examines the risk to each building on campus.

“With every critical facility that we have … we look at the critical functions of the building and then what the damage estimates would be if we had a hurricane, earthquake, flood (or a) landslide,” he explained. “We did an extensive look at all the facilities on the campus and went through, ‘OK, is it in a flood plain zone, is it not? What are the probabilities of a tornado, severe weather?’”

Hescock used the dining commons as an example. If the emergency generator failed during a natural disaster, the refrigerators in each dining commons would fail as well. Inevitably, he said, there is only a certain amount of time the campus could sustain itself having to feed roughly 13,000 on-campus students without a refrigerated food supply.

An easier solution, Hescock suggested, would be to add an emergency generator that solely operates refrigerators, a solution that would not cost the University because of its grant money.

“One of the primary results of this plan is … the recommendations and strategies,” Hescock said. In addition to adding more generators, possible projects include diverting floodwaters from susceptible areas and putting more power lines underground.

Because the University has a FEMA-approved hazard mitigation plan, Hescock said the University will become more eligible for grant funding, which will continue to further campus projects.

Shelby Ashline can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @shelby_ashline.