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SAFETI Clearinghouse
Special Issue: Haiti

Special Issue: Haiti: January 2010 Earthquake Response

Haiti Earthquake Response: Issues to Consider for Study Abroad and other College and University Programs

by Gary Rhodes, Ph.D., Director, SAFETI Clearinghouse

The situation in Haiti is different, in a number of ways, from most health and safety issues and challenges that have been faced by U.S. colleges and universities when sending faculty, staff, and students abroad. The widespread impact on a country which faced significant health and safety challenges has made the immediate, short-term, and potential long-term response even more challenging. The number of U.S. colleges and universities with students, faculty, and staff in Haiti was low compared with most other countries as there was a U.S. Department of State Travel Warning prior to the earthquake. A Travel Warning is issued "to describe long-term, protracted conditions that make a country dangerous or unstable." A Travel Warning is also issued when the U.S. Government's ability to assist American citizens is constrained due to the closure of an embassy or consulate or because of a drawdown of its staff: U.S. Department of State Haiti Information.

Most U.S. colleges and universities who had personnel in Haiti, were aware that their students, faculty, and staff were there. It is important that a central database exists at the home campus and methods are in place so that in case of a crisis, the appropriate officials in the U.S. and abroad know who is there and can help in the response. It is also important that before students, faculty, and staff go abroad, they are made aware of the health and safety challenges in the country where they are going abroad. Along with the continuing health and safety challenges, most would have also been aware of the additional challenges faced in Haiti during 2008 when storms damaged a significant amount of Haiti's infrastructure. Many of the repairs from the storms were only temporary, resulting in additional infrastructure challenges when the earthquake hit and challenging the response. Whereas many study abroad programs are provided as open learning experiences in a country and culture where there was no travel warning of concerns with health and safety issues in the country of study, this was not the case with programs in Haiti. The rationale behind many U.S. college and university presence in Haiti was to support service projects to help the citizens of Haiti and enable students to better understand the challenges faced in a country where health and safety challenges are a part of daily life.

Once the earthquake hit and the tragic impact of the earthquake caused thousands of deaths and injuries and undermined the country's infrastructure, there were two types of responses from U.S. colleges and universities. One response was the type found in any emergency response: make sure all faculty, students, and staff are safe and help them where they are and help them return to the U.S. The other response started with making sure all faculty, staff, and students were safe and then moved to finding ways to provide service to help Haiti move through the tragedy of the earthquake. This meant that not only were some people planning to not leave Haiti, but some colleges and universities have mobilized health care and other staff to go to Haiti to help in the support response after the earthquake.

The Chronicle of Higher Education article: American Colleges Scramble to Contact Students and Professors in Haiti has provided some information about the various types of U.S. college and university programs in Haiti as well as the continuing service efforts in Haiti by those institutions : Chronicle of Higher Education Article: American Colleges Scramble to Contact Students and Professors in Haiti.

Balancing Community Service and Safety

Although at once concerned for any faculty, staff, and students' health and safety for being in a country with health and safety challenges, I think the higher education sector should take pride in the service efforts of those there before the earthquake and for those who plan to stay, as well as those who are traveling to go help in Haiti. At the same time, colleges and universities need to activate their emergency response plans to help those who are in Haiti and need health and safety support and want to leave the country, as well as those who plan to stay or are planning to go help in Haiti.

I am not suggesting that students, faculty, and staff should go to Haiti at this time. There are other ways to help. These are individual and institutional decisions which involve risk. For those who want to stay and those who want to go to help, there are significant health and safety challenges that will be faced. Decision-makers should be clear about the risks, prepared to respond, but know that as adults, they are willing to take the risks to their health and safety. Responsible institutions should consider the personal challenges involved and that have sufficient resources in place to support students, faculty and staff and be able to show that they understand the potential health and safety risks. There is a delicate balance between providing support for others in need and putting yourself in harms way/compromising your health and safety. Help is needed in Haiti and being there to help does result in personal health and safety challenges.

Campus Response to Crisis in Haiti

Campuses should bring their campus crisis management team (including health center, student affairs, international programs, and risk management/insurance representatives) together to make sure there is collaboration to monitor the situation and develop a plan for students, faculty, and staff currently in Haiti and for those who may be traveling there. It is important to communicate with your emergency assistance and insurance providers to confirm support for students, faculty, and staff. What are their capabilities on the ground in Haiti? Now that the earthquake has taken place, what can be done to help those who need help on the ground and want to leave? Will there be limitations of care for those who choose to stay or who are now traveling to Haiti? For those who need help, it is important to plan for both local care and treatment and the possibility to bring them home if they need to leave the country. Find out what other colleges and universities in your area are doing to provide local guidance. I would also suggest communicating with any U.S. NGOs, the U.S. government, and other international partners to confirm the situation in the part(s) of Haiti where you may have faculty, staff, or students. For institutions who have students, faculty, or staff returning from Haiti, it is important to have both physical and mental health support available.

Finding Ways to Help: Provide Support and Donate

Most faculty, staff, and students will not be able to go to Haiti to provide assistance. The SAFETI Clearinghouse and Center for Global Education support finding an organization which provides direct assistance in Haiti. The Chronicle of Philanthropy has an article that provides suggestions on ways to give : Chronicle of Philanthropy: How to Decide Where to Give to Aid Haiti. Campus faculty, staff, and students as individuals or as groups can collaborate to make a difference. Don't forget to provide support to international students from Haiti as well as faculty, staff, students, and members of the local community with friends and family in Haiti.

Travel Health and Safety Information

Following are some key resources and information to help support institutional response to the situation in Haiti:

U.S. Department of State

The U.S. Department of State has set up a Special Operations Center to support the response to the challenges in Haiti. Information about their response can be found at: State Department Special Operations Center. To handle requests most efficiently, the State Department has established an e-mail address for people who are trying to contact their U.S. citizen friends and relatives in Haiti. Please send your inquiries to: Haiti-Earthquake@State.Gov. Although communication is still challenging, following is contact information: U.S. citizens are urged to contact the Embassy via email at to request assistance. U.S. citizens in Haiti can call the Embassy's Consular Task Force at 509-2229-8942, 509-2229-8089, 509-2229-8322, or 509-2229-8672. The State Department has also created a task force to monitor the emergency. People in the U.S. or Canada with information or inquiries about U.S. citizens in Haiti may reach the Haiti Task Force at 888-407-4747. Outside of the U.S. and Canada, call 202-501-4444.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Along with background information on the challenges of health and safety conditions in Haiti at: CDC Haiti Information, the CDC has provided information to support U.S. residents in Haiti, which is relevant for faculty, staff, and students who are currently in Haiti: CDC Info for Citizens in Haiti, and U.S. Relief Workers going to or in Haiti: CDC Info for US Citizens Traveling to Haiti, which is relevant to college and university faculty, staff, and students who are planning to travel to Haiti at this time. Their content includes information about recommended immunizations, security issues, key items to have/bring, safe food and water, protection from animals and insects, infectious diseases, preventing and responding to injury, exposure to human remains, and mental health issues and self-care for stress.

World Health Organization

The World Health Organization (WHO) has useful information on health issues and responding to the challenges in Haiti: WHO Haiti Information.

Pan American Health Organization

The Pan American Health Organization is a regional arm of the World Health Organization and has useful information on health issues and responding to the challenges in Haiti: Pan American Health Organization Haiti Information.

United Nations

The United Nations' News Center provides updates on the situation in Haiti and the role of the United Nations in providing support: UN News Center Haiti Information.

Learning from the Earthquake in Haiti Earthquake to Help in International Program Emergency Response Planning

Many would suggest that it is too soon to use the example in Haiti to review health and safety protocols for other program. Colleges and universities have study abroad, service and research projects, and development projects all over the world. The potential for large-scale health and safety challenges exists and students, faculty, and staff may be better able to focus on potential challenges and developing an appropriate response by looking at this situation. Institutions should consider reviewing their emergency planning methods (in the U.S. and abroad) using the earthquake in Haiti as a "worst-case scenario." Study abroad administration is complex and involves administering the responsibilities of a full university in another part of the world. As a result, responding to any serious health and safety issue is best done if it is part of an effectively run program that receives institutional support and has colleagues to assist in the various issues that come up during a crisis.

Preparing for the worst-case scenario, like the earthquake in Haiti, requires a broad-ranging review on issues from medical care abroad, emergency evacuation policies and options, refund policies, separation of faculty, staff, and students if on-site administrators are the ones who become sick, having 24-hour support in the U.S. and abroad, maintaining updated information about potential health and safety incidents which could have an impact in any place where a program takes place, where excursions go, and where students go during independent travel. It also emphasizes the importance of having an emergency action plan and practicing the plan. When the incident happens and communication is not possible, each student, staff, and faculty member should know where to go and what to do.

If an institution integrates this into their crisis management planning, this can become an opportunity to be prepared for other crises not foreseen by faculty and staff. This is also an opportunity for study abroad administrators to take on an active role in on-campus crisis management planning. As a Center based in Los Angeles, the potential for a devastating earthquake is real. This is an opportunity to prepare on campus and prepare abroad in an integrated fashion.

Key personnel to involve in planning, for a comprehensive university, could include:

  • U.S. college or university/Study abroad program support team
    • Student affairs administrators
    • Study abroad administrators
    • Campus security/police officer
    • Risk manager/insurance coordinator
    • Legal counsel
    • Health center
    • Counseling center
    • Public relations
    • President or chancellor’s office
    • Other on-site staff
    • Student representative
  • Support Abroad
    • On-site program administrator
    • Other on-site staff
    • On-site health provider
    • On-site counseling provider
    • Insurance representative
    • 24-hour assistance company
    • U.S. government representative (Embassy or Consular official)
    • Local police
    • Local emergency assistance provider

In developing an effective preparation for this or any other possible crisis abroad, it would be good to have a Crisis Management Team in the U.S., a Crisis Management Plan, and policies and procedures which have been tested abroad. 

Crisis Management

As you consider the response to Swine Flu and put it into the perspective of preparing for or responding to potential or real crises abroad, following are ten steps to consider:

  • Ten Steps for Effective Crisis Response Planning
    1. Centralized Support and Planning: Include Cross-Campus Planning for All International Programs (Study Abroad, Research, Internships, Service-Learning, Athletic Teams, etc.) and Decision-Making
    2. Develop a Balanced Campus-wide Response – Don’t Over- or Under- react - Leadership Needs to Be Organized, Consistent, On Message, Calm, and Appropriate to the Incident
    3. Keep Campus Response Team Current With Relevant Data
    4. Monitor Broad Ranging Data/Situation Regularly Using Resources Including:
      • US Govt (CDC, State dept.);
      • International Institutions (WHO);
      • Country(ies) Impacted (Mexican govt, US Embassy, Mexico);
      • Field-based (NAFSA, URMIA, ACHA); and
      • Regional – other study abroad programs based near your US or International Campus
    5. Provide Information for Faculty, Staff, Students, and Parents with Perspectives, Links, and Advice on Response
    6. Have Emergency Communication Plans in Place
    7. Maintain Quality Insurance and 24 Hour Emergency Assistance Coverage
    8. Have a Contingency Fund for Special Support and Extra Costs Associated With Emergencies, Including Program Cancellation
    9. Have Emergency Cards and Other Emergency Information Readily Available in Multiple Locations for Faculty, US and International Staff, and Students
    10. Develop Emergency Action Plan, Practice Your Plan (with All Partners – Faculty, Staff, Students, etc.), Update Your Plan, Practice Again

Following are links to several resources that may help your institution develop its Crisis Management Team, Crisis Management Plan, and policies and procedures.

Impact on Students

The Center strongly suggests that institutions provide information to parents and students, including travel and country-specific warnings provided by the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization (WHO). The Center also suggests you seek alternative information from international sources in the European Union, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and from the World Health Organization. (Please see below for links to these resources).

As program support varies from institution to institution, develop a method monitoring the situation daily, reviewing the possible impact of Swine Flu on students and programs, and updating emergency plans accordingly. Develop a process for deciding whether or not to cancel programs in affected areas, reviewing transportation plans, or postponing pending study abroad programs in certain areas due to a potential health risk. For students returning from affected regions, inquire to see if your institution encourages you to get a check-up at your campus health center and remember to report any Swine Flu-like symptoms.

Other Information Resources

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have both provided resources and information to help you understand the health implication of the earthquake and its impact in Haiti.

CDC Haiti Info
WHO Haiti Info

U.S. Government Resources:

International Resources:

Other Resources: