With more than 150,000 students displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, school leaders are taking a fresh look at their emergency preparedness.

Schools more than a day’s drive away from the Gulf Coast are suddenly swamped with nature’s victims, none of whom will ever forget the scarring trauma they’ve endured. The Houston Independent School District, for example, grew by more than 3,000 students practically overnight, even though it’s at least a 10-hour drive from the hardest-hit areas.

“Houston ISD officials are being asked to do something they never thought they’d have to do,” says Gregory Thomas, director of school planning for Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness. “We have to look at this in a whole new light.”

In the post-Katrina world, crisis response plans that rely heavily on smooth-running transportation systems, ample electrical power, and stable student and staff populations now seem naïve and inadequate.

When communications completely break down and schools are left in ruins, how do you reach out to students, parents, faculty, and staff and begin restoring a sense of community–and hope?

Sleeping on cots and gym floors, public information officials and volunteers in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, and Texas are finding out just how hard it is to communicate when eMail, laptops, cell phones, land-line phones, fax machines, and other technology simply isn’t available. In many cases, word of mouth, the news media, and a smattering of web sites are the only communication channels that are up and running.

While the lessons learned from one of the nation’s worst and most widespread disasters are still emerging, it’s not too soon to review your plans with post-Katrina hindsight. For top-notch training and audit materials, plus sample safety plans and crisis communication guidelines, check out www.nassauschoolsemergency.org. Funded by a U.S. Department of Education grant, this web site is filled with useful tools and templates.

Designed by the Nassau, N.Y., Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) to help schools improve their emergency response and crisis management planning, the web site is built around the four key phases of emergency management: (1) mitigation and prevention; (2) preparedness; (3) response; and (4) recovery.

“Emergency preparedness is both a process and a mindset,” says Thomas, who coordinated the emergency response for New York City public schools during the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. “It has to become part of the culture if we’re going to reduce the possibility of large losses of life and serious injury.”

Having reviewed hundreds of school and district safety plans, Thomas says he’s concerned that most are not comprehensive enough in scope.

“There are more than 15,000 school districts in the United States, and unfortunately, many of their plans are drawn too narrowly,” says Thomas. “They haven’t involved the police or emergency preparedness departments. They have not shared their plans with parents.”

Thomas says that school safety team members often seem confused about their roles, responsibilities, and purpose.

“School safety teams need to know what to do when [disaster strikes] so they can come to the table prepared to participate,” says Thomas. “They need to understand the four phases of emergency management and how incident command works. They need to know how to handle multi-hazard emergency response and how to shelter, evacuate, and place students and staff in cases of a terrorist attack.”

Crisis communications and managing the media are two often-overlooked aspects of emergency preparedness, according to Peter La Duca, senior manager of the Nassau BOCES Health and Safety Training and Information Services department. La Duca urges administrators to hire well-trained public information officers who can work effectively with the news media and manage communications with staff members, students, parents, and other stakeholders.

Too often, La Duca says, superintendents and other school leaders try to manage the media by themselves, frequently with disastrous results. He says the relationship school officials have with the media often is a determining factor in how their leadership is viewed during a crisis.

“We all recognize that communications can break down for many reasons,” says La Duca. “I think the key question is, how do you want your school district to be seen? Will you be seen as a district that pulled together as a team–or as a district that didn’t handle the situation appropriately?”

When the media rushes in to interview students and staff, “you have to take charge of your site and secure a safe place for children,” he adds. Thomas agrees, noting that children process trauma differently than adults and need time to process what happened to them with their parents and other caring adults they know and trust.

Having a microphone stuck in their faces minutes after experiencing a significant trauma and viewing the replays on television only adds to their grief and stress.

That’s why comprehensive plans must consider students’ medical and psychiatric needs–both immediate and long-term–during and after a crisis.

After getting students to safety, reuniting them with their parents and family members is a top priority–and an extremely difficult process to manage in the upheaval caused by major incidents. Keeping students separated from the news media speeds this process and minimizes the trauma created when tragic images are rebroadcast thousands of times. Serving as the “voice of the school system” during a crisis, public information officers can and should provide the news media with frequent updates, scheduling briefings at least three to four times per day.

PIOs should coordinate interviews between the media and principals, the superintendent, school board members, and community leaders to ensure consistency of message. Seasoned PR professionals also understand and can guide school leaders regarding symbolic communication, which is critical during high-stress and high-stakes situations. Leaders need to be visible and on the scene during a crisis–something they can’t do if they’re trying to handle everything, including communications with the media and stakeholders, by themselves.

While proactive media relations and strong symbolic communication can help reassure stakeholders, school districts shouldn’t rely solely on the news media, La Duca says. Nassau BOCES advocates having “redundant” or back-up systems in place in case of widespread power outages or communications failure.

Partnering with the Nassau County Office of Emergency Management, Nassau BOCES has created an 800 MHz trunked radio system to supplement normal communication methods. The radio network allows direct communication between the Nassau County Office of Emergency Management, Nassau BOCES, and Nassau County school districts. Currently, eight districts are piloting the program, which costs only $3,347 and won’t fail if the power goes out.

Nora Carr is chief communications officer for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. She is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications and marketing.