School Safety | News

Emergency Notification: One District's Hurricane Story

St. Charles Parish Public Schools had its emergency notification service up and running just ahead of the most notorious American hurricane in modern times.

Leadership Through Communication Award Apps Due Sept. 15

In 2006, both Rochelle Cancienne-Touchard and her superintendent, Rod LaFon, were co-recipients along with two other districts of the "Award of Honor in Hurricane Communications," subsequently renamed the Leadership Through Communication Award. Co-sponsored by the National School Public Relations Association, the American Association of School Administrators, and Blackboard Connect, the award comes with a $10,000 prize. St. Charles chose to award that to two $5,000 scholarships awarded to high school seniors in the district who plan to major in college in communication.

The 2012 application is due September 15. That's available on the NSPRA's site.

As this year's hurricane season continues threatening the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coastlines, the parents of school children in St. Charles Parish Public Schools know that if conditions warrant evacuation, they'll no doubt be hearing from Rochelle Cancienne-Touchard. The director of public information has been the official voice of emergency contact with the 17-school Louisiana district ever since August 2005, the fateful month when Hurricane Katrina destroyed the levees of New Orleans, located some 20 miles down the Mississippi River.

During the intervening years she's become an experienced hand at educating school districts about the importance of their emergency communication programs.

Cancienne-Touchard, who graduated from high school in the same district, had actually been on the job in her district since 1998 after stints in public affairs for both the state government and the National Guard. She was part of a team of three under another director. The district was accustomed to using standard communications vehicles for putting out information, including press releases to local media, the district Web sites, and a local cable access channel under district control. But those weren't always sufficient.

As Cancienne-Touchard explained, "We had been through a couple of tropical storms and minor hurricanes where we had to evacuate. Getting the message out to our employees and parents wasn't difficult. We'd tell them, 'OK, the parish president has declared a mandatory evacuation. Schools are going to be closed. We're hoping to return to school in a couple of days.'"

That's an easy message to deliver before people leave, she said. But once they're gone, they disperse family all over the south--northern Louisiana, Texas, Tennessee, and Florida--depending on which way the storm is headed. It's much more difficult to get updates out succinctly and without distortion.

But two events helped catalyze district efforts to improve communications. First, it received notorious publicity when a special education kindergartner was handcuffed and taken away from school in the back of a police car. The district became a media feeding frenzy. "There was no one here willing to tell the district's side of the story," Cancienne-Touchard noted, "and the child ended up being with his grandmother on Geraldo."

Because of her former work with the state governor, Cancienne-Touchard knew the district had to become more savvy about working with the media. "If you ignore them and say, 'We have nothing to say,' they think that you're hiding something and they're going to dig.... But as long as you're up front with them and honest, then you've won half the battle. They'll become part of your team."

The second catalyzing event was membership in the National Schools Public Relations Association and attendance at its annual conference. Exposure to what others were doing in their schools inspired Cancienne-Touchard to push for a communication audit in her organization to identify gaps in coverage. That included putting together a task force composed of parents, staff, senior citizens, government agency representatives, and industry leaders. The group set up a plan, and the department was reorganized. Cancienne-Touchard was named director and told by her superintendent, Rodney LaFon, "Your job is to make sure we're not in the paper."

7 Tips for Staying on Top of Emergency Communications

When Cancienne-Touchard talks to others in school districts about emergency communication, she emphasizes seven points:

  • If you don't have it, you need to get it, "whether that's Connect or some other system."
  • Use as few voices as possible to represent the district so that recipients know it's "official." "If you're hearing my voice, you know that it's official. You're not hearing it second hand, third hand--you're hearing it from the district representative."
  • Let the district office handle the heavy lifting. While schools may send out outreach notifications, all emergency messages at St. Charles are done from the district office. "If there's an emergency taking place at their school, the last thing they need to be worried about is sending out a call. They call 911 and then they call us, and we put things in motion."
  • Use multiple forums to communicate. "Not only do we use Blackboard Connect for phone contact, but we're able to take our messages and upload them to a Facebook page and to Twitter. I am a true believer in redundancy. If you can't get it one place, you can try to get it on another place. That's really important in a time of a crisis."
  • Strive for accuracy over speed. "As quick as we can get these messages out, I still will never be able to compete with a kid on their cell phone calling or texting mom or dad. So while it's crucial for us to get our message out as quickly as possible, I'd rather be five minutes behind and have the most accurate information. I've seen too many people trying to rush and then having to correct themselves, and then it becomes chaos."
  • Pre-populate data for parents. Although parents had to fill out forms with all of their contact numbers in the first year of notification service usage, in subsequent years the district provided a form that had all of their contact information and a note to correct or update anything that had changed. That takes "the burden off of our secretarial staff at the schools to have to input that information all over again. All they have to do now is make the changes." (Next up, the ability for parents to update their own information directly in the service.)
  • Stay on top of new staff and student data. "Every Friday we upload all of the employee information, and the school office specialists upload the student information as a practice--even if they haven't made changes. Because we don't know when we're going to have an emergency. It could be over the weekend. It could be over a holiday. If the information that we have in the system is not up to date and current, it serves us no purpose."

'This is the Tool We Need'
In July 2004 a colleague had encouraged Cancienne-Touchard to attend a presentation about a service called Connect-ED being sold by The NTI Group that provided a way to do mass communication to large numbers of people. (The service has since been acquired by Blackboard and renamed Blackboard Connect.) "I was just completely blown away," she recalled. "I thought, 'This is the tool that we need in our communication arsenal without a doubt.'"

Cancienne-Touchard and her communications team researched alternatives and eventually invited a company representative to come in and make a presentation to the superintendent of the district and key administrators and principals. "It wasn't great just because we could send stuff out in emergencies, but also because our principals could do outreach with their own school community," she noted.

The sales pitch took place in April 2005, six months before Katrina began its destructive journey, and that same day the superintendent signed a three-year contract with the company. "The superintendent is very tech savvy, very communications savvy. So convincing him that we needed this was not very difficult, and it was the best $10,000 we ever spent," declared Cancienne-Touchard.

The communications team and others spent the summer of 2005 being trained and getting employee contact data uploaded into the service. People were hesitant to provide information, which included the names and phone numbers of places where they had family and friends and might head in the event of evacuation. But when the district explained that it was strictly for hurricane evacuation purposes, they felt "more comfortable," Cancienne-Touchard said. Why not just use cell phone numbers? "If the cell phone towers are down here, it may be more difficult for us to get to your cell phone; but somebody's home phone may be easily accessible."

Staff testing of the system took place that summer. Then when schools opened Aug. 15, the district sent a letter out to them for dissemination to their students. Families were given a four-day window in which to get the information returned.

"By that point we were rolling into the height of hurricane season," Cancienne-Touchard explained. The forms were due back Aug. 19; but with 10,000 kids and potentially six phone numbers per kid, a massive data entry effort was required. The schools began entering their own students' data Aug. 22. By Aug. 24, Katrina had hit land on the eastern seaboard of Florida, which seemed a safe world away from New Orleans.

"This gave us the perfect opportunity to send messages to these school office specialists saying, 'You see, guys? We don't have anything to worry about, but this could have been at our backdoor. Any storm could be at our backdoor, and it's important for us to make sure that this information is in the system.'"

Disaster in the Early Morning Hours
On the night of Aug. 26, Friday, the technology department was working with the communications team to upload all of the data into the notification service. There was a possibility that the storm would jump over the Florida Panhandle and track to the Mississippi and Louisiana coastline. Cancienne-Touchard remembered announcers using the PA system during a Friday night football game between the two high schools to remind the crowd to keep monitoring storm conditions and to be prepared for evacuation.

The following morning, the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) team, of which Cancienne-Touchard is a member, was scheduled to have a meeting. But in the wee hours, her phone rang to inform her that the meeting was being moved up to 5 a.m. because the storm had, indeed, jumped into the Gulf. By 9 a.m. Saturday morning, a mandatory evacuation had been called.

That meant that with the exception of emergency personnel, everybody had to get out of the parish or be prepared to weather the storm on their own. As a member of EOC Cancienne-Touchard was expected to stay behind even as she prepared to send her family out of the area.

At the same time the parish president made his announcement about the evacuation, she was standing by ready to send her first full emergency notification by Connect-ED. The message informed the school community, "St. Charles Parish is currently under a mandatory evacuation due to Hurricane Katrina. Schools will be closed. We will inform you when schools will reopen."

That morning after she'd gotten her family off, Cancienne-Touchard recalled moving through the parish in a district vehicle with the school system logo on the side. "While I was driving through the neighborhoods, I could see people boarding their windows and loading their cars. And as they saw me, they'd put their hands to their ears [as if to say] 'I got your message.' How powerful was that?"

By Sunday at 7 a.m. Katrina had been classified a Category 5 storm with potential gusts of up to 215 mph. The area had become a ghost town except for those residents who had no way to leave or those who chose to stay. Early Monday Katrina struck land again as it pummeled Louisiana. By 9 a.m. six to eight feet of water had buried the Lower Ninth Ward.

Although St. Charles Parish has no hurricane protection levees, the flooding there was slight compared to what was happening in New Orleans. But in order to inform parish residents of the status of their community, the superintendent along with the parish president wanted to get a follow-up message out. The assumption was that if parents and school staff--evacuated to 13 different states--could receive official word about the fate of the parish, they would relay it others.

However, by then everything was down, Cancienne-Touchard said. "The cell lines were down. We had no electricity." In order to get that call out, she contacted her sister, who was living in Baton Rouge, which hadn't lost power. "Because of the ease and the user friendliness of this system, I was able to walk her through putting the message out. She recorded it. She put it out." And because both women "sound so much alike, no one knew difference."

Getting the Word Out Whenever
As the days passed and cell coverage began to return to the area, Cancienne-Touchard took to contacting Connect-ED staff in the middle of the night to relay the latest messages. "They would say, 'Rochelle, are you sure? It's two in the morning!' I would say, 'Listen, during the day people are jamming these cell lines and I can't get anything through. They're sleeping right now. I don't care if I wake them up.' The successful percentage that we had when we did that was much greater than when I was doing it throughout the day."

Those later messages were status updates, she explained: "There is no food, there is no water, no utilities, nothing. Do not come back right now, because you're not going to the Wal-Mart down the street to get a gallon of milk. There's no gas. There is nothing. We will let you know when to start coming back."

By then her days were filled with activities related to helping those people who were pouring into the community, many on foot from New Orleans. "What they had on them was all they had. They'd lost everything. It was very overwhelming," she said." She wouldn't see her own daughter, was who 10 at the time, for a month.

As regional recovery efforts got underway, the school district began to understand the importance of reopening as soon as possible. The parish is surrounded by industry--Motiva Enterprises, Valero Energy, Shell, Dow Chemical, a nuclear power plant. "They looked at the school system as a catalyst," Cancienne-Touchard said. "If the kids are in school, then that means the parents are back and working at these industries. That's tied to the whole economic recovery as well. We knew that we needed people to come back to get our parish up and running again."

By Sept. 11, 2005, after losing 12 school days to Katrina, the St. Charles schools, which had sustained about $5 million in damages, were open again. Fifty of its teachers had lost their homes and were living with relatives and colleagues. Some areas of the district were still without phone service. Some streets were lined with hurricane debris. But now the buses were running again, and classrooms were taking in children. That included not just its prior students, but also 1,300 kids who had been attending schools in neighboring parishes and who were now within the St. Charles boundaries due to evacuation.

"We managed to make it happen," said Cancienne-Touchard. "We didn't wait for the federal government because that was a joke; FEMA was a joke. The state and the federal government were too busy ping-ponging back and forth blaming each other. We utilized our resources and we got our parish back on line."

Just 11 days later St. Charles' Superintendent LaFon found himself in front of a Senate committee in Washington, D.C. testifying on why his district needed immediate emergency-related funding to support the transition it would have to go through during that school year.

As any director of public information would do when her boss was facing down Congress, Cancienne-Touchard accompanied him to Washington. But as LaFon sat in front of senators, she was sitting in another office down the hall, preparing a message to the emergency notification list to let people know that the district would be closed the following day. Hurricane Rita was heading its way.