In Sandy's Wake: Lessons For College Students And Their Parents

My family is one of the fortunate ones, but it is my hope that sharing our lessons will help college students and their families maximize safety in the face of any disaster.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

When my sons chose New York University as their college destination, their father and I recognized the need to discuss safety, emergency planning and even evacuation. September 11th saw to that, as did Katrina and other campus tragedies over the years that no one saw coming. This week, we lived to see the importance of those parental lectures, but we also found that preparation, at the family level, needs to be better -- a lot better. Had the devastation in lower Manhattan been worse, or had forces not aligned, my story might be different.

When Sandy hit, it left my Brooklyn-dwelling older son stranded in Florida, which was warm, breezy and safe. That gave me more energy to focus on child #2 who was smack in the middle of lower Manhattan in a high-rise dorm that quickly lost power and water. When he phoned and said, "It's out. The power just went out," it was like a punch in the stomach. Now I know it was because we were losing parental power and contact and I wondered if I'd done enough. In retrospect, there was much more we all could have done.

My family is one of the fortunate ones, but it is my hope that sharing our lessons will help college students and their families maximize safety in the face of any disaster.

Realize It Can Happen

It's easy to feel safe and protected on campus, and universities do have policies, procedures and resources to maximize student safety. Our children are their top priority. However, students, at the height of adolescent egocentrism, often believe that nothing bad will happen to them. Parents too, might assume that a university can single-handedly master every campus emergency. Partner those beliefs with a devastating disaster, and your college student's safety could be compromised. Families need to realize that the worst can happen on campus -- not because any of us want to panic, but because being prepared can keep you alive.

Always Have The Essentials

Every college-bound student should own a flashlight and a package of "D" batteries. I've always preached the power of flashlights, but after this storm, I know the power of backup plans and batteries. In fact, one friend noted that she keeps an old obsolete computer charged at all times because of its strong battery that allows her to charge her cell phone during storms. This is a resourceful way to maximize the ability to communicate during a disaster. Having hand sanitizer, cash, bottled water and over-the-counter fever and cold medication on hand is never a bad idea. Candles, however, are a bad idea and forbidden in dorms due to fire hazards.

Warning: Telling your college student to purchase these items does not necessarily mean he or she will do so. I know, they're supposed to be independent, but if a care package will save them and you heartache down the road, I'd belly up to the task.

Create a Plan and a Backup Plan

Creating an evacuation plan is critical, but if you can't get East, you'll have to go West, North or South. Sometimes one plan isn't enough. Brainstorm where your child could go and how he could get there if he needed to quickly leave campus. If you must find evacuation options quickly, consider using social media. My son's journey out of Manhattan was facilitated by information from my friends on Facebook -- proof that sometimes 564 heads are better than one. Note: My son was safe on NYU's campus, but as conditions deteriorated because of power and water outages, students were encouraged to consider relocating to unaffected residences of family and friends if possible.

Collect Contact Information

Students and parents should have contact information for all friends and acquaintances who live near campus. When food, shelter and transportation are needed, these contacts will be invaluable. Parents should also have the phone numbers of their children's roommates/close friends and their parents.

Discuss Food, Water and Electricity Safety

This may be the first time your child has dealt with power and water outages without your supervision. Does she know how long food can be safely consumed without refrigeration? Is she aware of the possibility that storm surges can sometimes lead to water supply contamination? Meteorologist Tim Pandajis notes that storm hazards like these, as well as the danger of standing water and electrocution and improper use of generators can pose very real threats to safety. I didn't remember discussing these topics with my boys. I added more disturbing images to my panic list as I feverishly tried to phone them.

Emphasize The Problem with Procrastination

As parents, we understand that, when a storm has been forecast, waiting until the last minute to bring in supplies is never a good idea. We've lived the grocery store frenzy, pondered over the one pathetic loaf of smushed bread and raced from place to place in search of driveway salt, batteries or candles. Some students haven't learned those lessons. Reminding college students to head to the stores early, refill prescription medications and charge their electronics before the storm begins can't hurt.

Be Phone Savvy

Power outages and limited cell phone service or batteries can affect your ability to communicate. My son left a message on his voicemail saying, "Because of the power outages, I am turning off my cell phone to save the battery. I am fine. Everything is fine." That message was exactly what his parents needed to hear.

If cell phone availability and battery power is extremely compromised, students should be encouraged to create a phone tree where parents can phone their friends' parents to update them on their children's safety. During emergencies, never screen out unrecognizable phone numbers. When the caller ID showed "Maryland," I assumed it was a political robocall and didn't answer. It was my son phoning on a friend's cell.

Encourage Students To Use University Resources

Some children are so used to phoning parents to help them problem-solve that they fail to investigate university resources. Always encourage your children to identify emergency resources on campus and to ask for help from student services and related offices when necessary.

As we focus on helping those devastated by this natural disaster recover, let's also vow to be better prepared families in the face of future dangers. Please share your tips and safety strategies in the comments below.