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Weathering the Storms

July 14, 2006—Four days into its global study-abroad voyage, the Semester at Sea cruise ship MV Explorer was struck by a fifty-foot wave.

Semester at Sea

Storm waves from the fifth deck of the MV Explorer

The Explorer, with close to nine hundred students, faculty, and family members, had been in rough seas since leaving Canada for Japan and South Korea. The wave struck the ship broadside shortly before dawn, starting an electrical fire that destroyed nearly two-thirds of the bridge and shut down navigation, radar, and most of the communications systems.

Traveling on the ship with his family was Dane Foust, a 1983 graduate of IUP’s Student Affairs in Higher Education (SAHE) program and dean of students at Mount Aloysius College. On this voyage, he was director of Student Life.

The seagoing college had been hammered by waves all night, and most of the students chose to sit in the ship’s hallways as the rolling waves made it too dangerous to be in their cabins. Foust walked the halls throughout the night, doing his best to reassure the students. When the giant wave slammed against the ship, everyone was suddenly tossed about. Windows were broken, and three of the ship’s four engines were damaged. Foust made his way to the infirmary to help get things in order so the doctors could care for the injured.

Dan Foust and his family“The engines were able to be restarted half an hour after the wave struck, although the ship’s computer systems were still down,” said Foust. The damaged ship diverted to Hawaii, arriving four days later. Foust spent those days counseling students traumatized by the experience, working to keep them calm and focused.

“Because the incident happened so early in the voyage, it brought us together as a group in a way that many other trips wouldn’t have,” he said. “We spent a lot of time in student counseling, working with the counselors already on board.”

They never did get to Japan or Korea, but made the best out their unexpected ten-day stay on the island.

“We put together a program to explore the culture and history of the islands,” said Foust. Classes continued to be taught on the ship while it was under repair. A flight was added to the itinerary, sending everyone to new destinations in China and Vietnam. The repaired Explorer finally caught up to them, and the round-the-world trip resumed.

Students in the ship's hallways during the stormFoust pointed out that SAHE gives plenty of training and planning for crisis intervention. Normally, it’s assumed that the crisis will be short-term, with resources arriving quickly. “The training is for short-term response—getting things established, what do we need to do immediately, who do we need to call to take care of the situation,” said Foust. “This situation stretched out for days, and there was no help. You usually don’t anticipate that kind of emergency situation.”

Another storm tested the mettle of Kevin Bailey ’90, assistant vice president for Student Affairs at Tulane University in New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina struck on the university’s freshman move-in day.

Storm's aftermath in the ship's libraryBailey and his wife evacuated to Montgomery, Ala., for a week, and Tulane’s students were scattered to other colleges, including Georgia Tech in Atlanta. In the storm’s wake, Bailey was asked to go to Atlanta, following several hundred students who were re-evacuated there either to enroll at other schools or to try getting home for the semester.

From September through November, Bailey was separated from his wife, who visited her family in Cleveland and then picked up her previous job in Pennsylvania. During that time, he worked with about 250 Tulane students, temporarily enrolling them at Georgia Tech and other schools and assisting in problem-solving for the displaced students. The challenge was not only to look after their safety and basic needs, but also to continue the higher goal of maintaining the education process.

Bailey helped his students register for classes and get set up in off-campus housing. Making those connections was a full-time job. In cities or institutions where at least a hundred students were enrolled for the fall, meetings were set up where either the president, vice president for Student Affairs, or the provost would meet with other administrators and community representatives to voice concerns and hammer out solutions.

Kevin Bailey

“Georgia Tech helped make the visiting students feel at home. They were very supportive,” said Bailey. To help ease the stress, the college provided students with gift cards to local stores and invited them to “watch parties” at restaurants during the football games.

In the end, 93 percent of Tulane’s students returned to campus in the Fall. Any attrition was mainly in the first-year students who were forced to move in and move out on the same day. Most had not developed a connection to Tulane. But many upperclass students who were staying at other institutions took it upon themselves to talk with the freshmen about why they should go back to Tulane.

“They talked about ‘this is what Tulane means to me, these are the things that would have happened during the fall semester that we may be missing, but this is what will happen in the spring,’” said Bailey. “Those students did a tremendous job of trying to paint a nice picture from their perspective as to why they decided to go back to Tulane and why the others should, too.”

Closed for the first time since the Civil War, Tulane University’s emergency plan received the ultimate test. Most of the first floors of residence halls and office buildings had severe water damage. Restoration, though expensive, proceeded quickly. “The campus looks as good as ever,” said Bailey. 

In such unique circumstances, attitude matters as much as training. “When dealing with realities of the moment, the basic needs of safety and security must be handled first,” said Ron Lunardini, chairperson of IUP’s department of Student Affairs in Higher Education. The higher goals inherent in teaching take a temporary backseat to helping students deal with the new environment.

“Tulane had a plan,” said Bailey. “But there’s only so far that a plan can take you. Katrina refined my experience as a crisis manager.”