When Disaster Strikes a College Community

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Coping with disaster... Long Island University and Mercer County Community College. Background photo Brian Birke, Creative Commons.
Coping with disaster… Long Island University and Mercer County Community College. Background photo Brian Birke, Creative Commons.

Surviving Sandy, other storms and a flood–and getting the college paper out

By Carolyn Schurr Levin

One of the most important, albeit seemingly routine, tasks of a college newspaper staff is the physical act of getting the newspaper out.

MugLogo_LevinBut what happens when a crisis hits, as it did when Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, only to be followed the following week by a nor’easter?

Among the college newspapers hit by Hurricane Sandy were the Pioneer, the weekly student newspaper at Long Island University Post in Brookville, N.Y., and the College Voice at Mercer County Community College in New Jersey. The College Voice publishes every three weeks.

In anticipation of the forecasted strong winds and hurricane conditions, Long Island University Post cancelled all classes on Monday, Oct. 29. Administrators encouraged students who could to evacuate the dormitories and return home. Approximately 600 students remained in the dorms during the storm.

The entire campus lost power shortly after the storm, as did the majority of Long Island. Cell phone coverage was spotty or nonexistent for more than a week. Communication basically stopped. The campus was without power, and the building housing the Pioneer’s off-campus printer was without power—and half its roof.

Classes did not resume for 1 ½ weeks at LIU—until Nov. 7. While the Pioneer was forced to abandon its Halloween edition because of the storm, it published an online edition about a week after the hurricane hit. Among the ways Pioneer students made it happen:

  • Those who had Internet access were able to submit stories. The news editor had no Internet access at all. So, she couldn’t read or edit any stories. Editors who did have Internet access did that for her.
  •  Those who had cell phone access—cell phone service was sporadic for a week–were able to make telephone calls. Editors whose phones worked were able to get in touch with their reporters, and reporters whose phones worked were able to do interviews.
  • A new reporter, who had just joined the newspaper staff during the fall semester, was one of the few with access to a computer. She wrote about the storm’s effect on the campus.
  • The paper’s sports editor wrote about the effect of the storm on campus and other sports, including the cancellations of a Brooklyn Nets home opener and the New York City marathon.
  • The editor-in-chief, who had lost part of her home and her car to the storm, and was without power, rented a car, drove to a local health club that had Wi-Fi, and began posting stories online.

Then, on Nov. 7, the day LIU Post was scheduled to reopen, a nor’easter hit Long Island and other parts of the East Coast.

The LIU Post campus lost power on and off on Nov. 7 and then completely on Nov. 8. Classes were cancelled yet again. The Pioneer’s outside printing company lost power, for the second time in two weeks, on Nov. 7. For a second week in a row, the newspaper could not be published.

In the wake of the personal devastation experienced by so many residents of New York and New Jersey, including many students, faculty and staff of LIU Post, not publishing the college newspaper for a couple of weeks does not seem tragic. However, for journalism students with a sense of duty and commitment, losing two weeks out of a 15-week semester is quite a loss.

When normalcy finally returned, the Pioneer staff decided to add one more issue to the end of the semester to make up for the two lost print editions. They devoted many pages of the issue that was finally published on Nov. 14 to storm coverage.

College Voice students produce online edition after Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy presented similar challenges for the staff of the College Voice at Mercer County Community College in central New Jersey. The hurricane delayed regular publication of the Voice, which is published every three weeks.

Said journalism professor and adviser Holly Johnson: “We couldn’t have put out a paper if we wanted to.”

Like the Pioneer newsroom, much of the Voice newsroom was without power for a week or more. During the storm, the staff of the Voice did, however, try to use their social media sites as best as possible. The Voice published a Hurricane Sandy Special Edition on Nov. 14. The special edition, Johnson said, was cathartic for the staff.

“It let them report on what they were experiencing,” she said. “It was a good learning experience. It brought them together.

School newspapers have experienced catastrophic events before Sandy, of course, and students have demonstrated similar grit and determination.

Student journalists publish in wake of Katrina, Alabama tornado, and Iowa flood

Hurricane Katrina, in late August 2005, led the staff of the Hullabaloo at Tulane University to create a “Tulane Hullabaloo Hurricane Plan.” When Katrina hit, the Tulane students had just arrived at school for orientation. The university president called a town hall meeting and told everyone to evacuate in anticipation of Katrina.

The Hullabaloo staff dispersed around the country to other schools for the entire semester that Tulane remained closed after the storm. The newspaper staff would not be together again for approximately six months. But the Hullabaloo survived that semester.

The Hullabaloo’s Editor arrived at the University of Pennsylvania as her evacuation school. She told the staff of the Daily Pennsylvanian that she was the editor of a newspaper without a home. They generously gave her server space and hosted the Hullabaloo for the entire semester. The Hullabaloo’s staff continued to write and send in stories from all across the United States, and to publish their paper online.

Once staff members of the Hullabaloo returned to campus, they discovered they had lost everything in their newsroom to Katrina. New computers and other equipment were donated. The staff became experts at “the ask,” according to Chantal Bailliet, Tulane’s Director for Student Media.

If you are in need of anything as a result of such an unforeseen disaster, just ask, she said, adding. “You’d be surprised at how many people want to help out.”

Following Hurricane Katrina, Bailliet created what she calls a “newspaper in a box.” The Hullabaloo is ready to pack all necessary components to begin operating again, including its server, decide who is taking the box where, and resume operating remotely, if necessary. Their written hurricane plan is thorough. They are prepared.

It’s not just hurricanes that warrant crisis planning. Other recent extreme weather conditions have challenged college newspapers to the same extent. An EF4 tornado ripped through Tuscaloosa, Ala., on April 27, 2011. The staff of the Crimson White at the University of Alabama survived the hurricane in the basement of their building.

“Within hours of the storm hitting, the staff was already at work updating their website with whatever information they could glean, given the chaos across town. Nothing came easy,” recalled Mark Mayfield, associate director of the Office of Student Media. The campus was without power, so the staff went to Mayfield’s house, which had survived the tornado, and to other locations, and used those places as their headquarters.

Within one week, the Crimson White had more than 100 stories online.

“Amazingly, they didn’t have to be told to do that,” Mayfield said. “In fact, in the end, we had to tell them to go home.”

The Crimson White had already developed a strong “community engagement team” for their social media before the tornado. That team used Twitter to obtain and distribute basic information, such as where people needed food or water.

The Crimson White’s tornado experience forced them to become multimedia reporters.

“MSNBC, the New York Times, Dateline NBC, and other national media outlets link[ed] to stories in The Crimson White, or use[d] images from the newspaper’s photographers. CBS News anchor Katie Couric even “tweeted” one of the CW articles. The newspaper also produced a dozen or more videos as part of its coverage, including reports from affected areas of town,” Mayfield wrote in his account of the crisis.

The Crimson White’s tornado coverage earned the paper several awards and national recognition, and prompted job offers for staff members upon graduation. Emotionally, the tornado drew the staff together.

“They have a bond that will be forever,” Mayfield said.

In Ames, Iowa, in August 2010, a week before fall classes were starting, a flood affected operations of the student newspaper, the Iowa State Daily.

The city was divided into two halves. Iowa State Daily staff residing on the west side of the city could not get to the east side, and those living on the east side could not travel to the west. The solution staff members came up with: They split into two bureaus and worked from where they were living. As it turned out, staff photographers were residing on both sides.

The Iowa State Daily reported through the crisis, even though it was the week before school was scheduled to begin, which was the newspaper staff’s training week.

“It was probably one of the best training exercises we ever had,” recalled Mark Witherspoon, the student newspaper’s editorial adviser.

“What my students learned is that we publish no matter what. Our obligation is to get information to the community. It doesn’t matter what happens; we will publish. Not publishing is not an option,” Witherspoon said.

Lessons for college media in wake of natural disasters

What lessons can be learned from the unforeseen hurricane experiences of the Pioneer and the Voice during Hurricane Sandy this fall, as well as from the similar experiences of the Hullabaloo, Crimson White and Iowa State Daily?

  • First, it is all important to have an accurate, updated staff list, with cell and home phone numbers and email addresses of all staff members. Hard copies of the list should be distributed at the beginning of each academic year so that contact can be made in the event of loss of power.
  • Second, contingency plans should be made for publishing in the event of widespread power outages, especially on the campus. If publishing an online edition alone from an off campus location is feasible, a plan to do so should exist. The Hullabaloo’s “newspaper in a box” concept can ensure continuity during a crisis.
  • Third, if possible, turn to your social media. The campus paper can be students’ only way to learn about what is going on in their hyper-local area. If an issue of the actual paper is impossible, try to use Facebook or Twitter to keep students informed. Get a hash tag that people will recognize for all of your social media. Establish a strong “community engagement team,” as the Crimson White had, to both develop and to disseminate news.
  • Fourth, again, if at all possible during the crisis, take pictures and videos. Pictures will tell the story for students, parents, alumni and others. If conditions are safe, send staff photographers out. Ask readers to send in their pictures and videos on your social media sites.
  • Fifth, turn the catastrophe into a learning experience. Focus on the storm. Report on what you are experiencing. In retrospect, the emergency will in all likelihood be the staff’s most significant training experience during their college careers.
  • Sixth, and most importantly, ensure everyone’s safety. Everyone being safe and sound is more important than not missing an edition.


College Voice coverage (http://www.mcccvoice.org)
College Voice coverage (http://www.mcccvoice.org)


  • LIU Post Pioneer shared a link. How did dormers experience the hurricane? Christina Foglietta spoke to students and shared her own experience.

Carolyn Schurr Levin is an attorney specializing in Media Law and the First Amendment. She has practiced law for over 20 years, including as the Vice President and General Counsel of Ziff Davis Media, the Vice President and General Counsel of Newsday, a Litigation Associate at Corbin Silverman and Sanseverino, and a Litigation Associate at Cravath, Swaine & Moore. She is admitted to the bars of New York, Connecticut and the District of Columbia. Levin also teaches Media Law and other related courses at the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University. Levin has also taught a graduate level course in Legal Aspects of Publishing at Pace University in New York City. As a freelance writer, Levin has been published in the New York Times Book Review, New York Law Journal, American Bar Association Journal, Corporate Counsel newsletter, Barrister magazine, and Special Counsel newsletter. Levin earned a J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School, a B.A. from Johns Hopkins University, and a Certificate in Journalism from New York University.


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