A River Ran Through It: Dr. Katherine Persson’s Harvey Experience
“This is our war room,” said Dr. Katherine Persson, President of Lone Star College/Kingwood, without a hint of emotion in her voice. She speaks in clipped tones, not wasting a word or a second. That’s my first clue about the ordeal she and her management team have been through … and the miracle they managed to pull off after the West Fork of the San Jacinto River ran through two-thirds of the campus.
During Hurricane Harvey, the college lost six of nine buildings to floodwater. The floodwater was contaminated with sewage forced up through floor drains when a nearby City of Houston wastewater treatment plant upstream also flooded. Decontamination took months. Restoration won’t finish until mid-January of 2019. Even before the floodwaters had fully receded, she and her team were busy developing a completely new business plan. They had to launch it in less than three weeks.
“Altogether,” Persson says, “Lone Star College District serves almost 90,000 students. We are the largest in the state and one of the largest in the country. The average size of a community college is 5,500.”
Persson oversees one sixth of the District. Her responsibilities extend from Humble to Tarkington (near Cleveland). She is responsible for:
- 13,000 students
- 150 full-time faculty
- 400 part-time faculty
- 400 full-time support staff
“We are a major economic engine in the community,” she says. “Despite the flood, we never closed down. We never laid anybody off. We made sure everybody got a paycheck.”
This is the story of how she and her team did it.
The Storm that Just Wouldn’t End
Persson’s story begins with a series of cascading delays. “On Friday, August 25th of 2017, we closed the college in anticipation of Hurricane Harvey. By Sunday, it became apparent that the storm was headed toward Houston, so we delayed the opening of school from the 28th to the 30th. But by Monday, the 28th, we determined that that wouldn’t work either, so we announced that classes would start on September 5th.
“On Monday night, we were a shelter and a staging place for Centerpoint. We had 20 people already staying in the gym. I got a call from Dave Martin, our city councilmember. He asked if we could become a Red Cross Shelter because Kingwood High School was flooding. I said, ‘yes,’ of course. We were a shelter for all of three or four hours. At 10:30 Monday night, we had to close down.”
Persson continued, “At 2:30 the next morning, our facilities director called and said we had water in at least five of our buildings. That was Tuesday, the 29th. Unless you had a boat, nobody could get here until the 30th. Once the roads cleared out we could see that we had massive damage to six buildings because of the SJRA release.”
“I Tried Not to Get Emotional”
“Our deans started gathering that Wednesday, August 30, at homes that weren’t flooded, trying to figure out what we would do. We drafted a preliminary plan that had us coming back by converting 16-week classes to 12-week classes with extensive reliance on online courses. We did the first campus assessment at 4 pm that day. I wasn’t devastated emotionally at that point, I was just impressed with the power of water and what it can do.”
“The depressing part was coming back Thursday and Friday. Everything kept smelling worse and worse. By Saturday, our facilities director got hold of a landscape crew that started cleaning the campus from one end to the other. When 250 Blackmon Mooring remediation workers started showing up, that became Good Day #1.”
“When I thanked the Lafayette volunteer group that was bringing 250 hot meals to campus for the workers, I think I freaked them out. They thought I was from the health department when I showed up in a white suit.”
“I work with miracle workers.”
By Tuesday, September 5th, classes started at all Lone Star colleges except Kingwood. Kingwood started on Monday, September 25th.
Rehak: “How did you manage that?”
Persson: “I work with miracle workers. All deans started working together in one upstairs room of the East Montgomery County Improvement District. The first thing we had to figure out was how to hold classes when we had just lost 113 classrooms. We postponed the opening again from September 5 to 25. Student services contacted everyone to tell them their schedules were going to change.”
“We told them, ‘You may have to move to a new location or go online, but just stick with us. We’ll try to make things work for you.’”
Enrollment Increases After Flood
“We actually gained students. But I think that’s because the devastation was so great in other parts of Houston. Many students couldn’t start school right away; they needed a couple extra weeks to get their lives in order. Our delay worked to their advantage and ours.”
Cataloging the Damage
“All of central receiving flooded, plus all of the trucks and everything we do to maintain the grounds. We temporarily redistributed janitorial and maintenance staff to our other colleges to keep them productive and avoid layoffs. We had no power on the campus for two weeks after Harvey; it wasn’t even safe to be in the buildings without personal protective equipment.”
“We lost six classroom buildings. The lower level of the health center was totally destroyed. So was the main central plant with our boilers, generators, and communication system. All those things that you need to fully function were flooded and contaminated. Our library was totaled and had to be gutted; water came up halfway on the monitors. You could even see the effects of current in the building.”
“Our field house was totally under water; we had tennis balls stuck in the rafters. And I’m not sure why the nature walk is still there. It had to be under 20 feet of water,” said Persson.
First Steps on the Long Road Back
“Our first meeting was in the Presbyterian church. It was important for folks to come together to make sure that everybody was ok and to hear about our preliminary plan.”
“I told the deans to do anything they could to help the students as long as it wasn’t illegal, immoral or unethical. And they did.”
“Basically, to get classes going, we took every nook and cranny to accommodate whole departments. Our big conference center was carved up into six rooms. We made classrooms out of the women’s center. Where the students used to shoot pool, that became the geology lab.”
The Search for Classroom Space
“We also found alternative spaces throughout the community. Some classes moved to our Atascocita Center. Biology, Chemistry and Art moved to LSC/North Harris. Nursing moved to Red Oak. Occupational therapy moved to Kindred Rehab. English for speakers of other languages moved to First Presbyterian. Cosmetology moved to Farouk, Inc. And we even borrowed some space from Harris County Fire Academy.”
“The most expensive program we have is dental hygiene. It’s one of the few programs in the entire Gulf Coast area, therefore it was difficult to find alternative space for that. We wound up leasing space off of FM1314 and front-loaded all the lectures in the fall until we could build out the space for dental hygiene.”
“We still have five buildings that are not fully open. We have partial use of the Library upstairs, so we have three and a half buildings out of nine at the moment.”
“We have been delayed by interior brick walls. There was mold behind them. Everything had to be dried out and kept at over 90 degrees for 3 months after it was cleaned and disinfected.”
Massive Temporary Shift to Online Learning
Rehak: “Tell me about the shift to online education.”
Persson: “We were 23% online before Harvey. After Harvey, it jumped to 62% online. It almost tripled. Face-to-face went from 70% to 21%. And hybrid education went from 7% to 16%.”
Rehak: “Did you have to certify faculty to train online that never trained online before?”
Persson: “Yes. We had a mere three weeks to certify them. We developed an emergency certification course and doubled the number of teachers we had who were certified to teach online from 41% to 82%. Now it’s even higher – 95%.”
“None of the full-time faculty complained; they still had jobs. But we lost two or three part-time faculty; they didn’t want to learn how to teach online.”
“We also had to train some students to learn online with a mobile unit. We tutored upstairs in the conference center and at Atascocita. We really had to scramble.”
Success Rate Takes Slight Dip
“Our success rate went from 72% to 67%. That’s not bad considering the huge shift to online where the success rate is never as good.”
Rehak: “How do you define “success”?
Persson: “Success is making a grade of C or better in a class.”
Accommodating Veterans and International Students
Rehak: “Were there any other adaptations you had to make?”
Persson: “Oh yes! We didn’t know before all this that veterans could only take one online class per semester, so we had to get special permission, or they had to go elsewhere to get more face-to-face learning time.”
“Also, since 9/11, Homeland Security has to approve all sites for international students. Some of the alternatives, such as Atascocita, were not formally approved sites. So we lost some of our international and veteran students to other colleges.”
Still Under (Re)Construction
Rehak: “Where do you plan to take it from here?
Persson: “We will be fully functional and looking all new by January of 2019. On the plus side, we have had an opportunity to update things that haven’t been updated since 1984.
“Our new process technology building opened in January 2018 and our new health care teaching facility will open in fall of 2020.”
“All of the deans are next door sharing a conference room. They could not have done what they did in such a short order if they weren’t all in the same room working together. They said that they didn’t want to go back into their silos. So in our build-back, we’re building a collaborative work center that 30 people will office out of,” said Persson.
Flood Cost $60 Million
Rehak: “How much did all of this cost?”
Persson: “We were the worst stage of contamination: Category 3 – or “black water” – meaning we had sewage in buildings. Clean-up was $11 million. Replacing contents will cost $19 million. And build-back will bring the total to an estimated $60 million.”
Rehak: “What is the most dramatic story to come out of this?”
Persson: “There was no loss of life. Not one student that we know of who planned to come here lost his or her life.”
“Harvey was a game changer; it reset expectations. There was none of the petty stuff you always get from students or employees. That totally disappeared. You have to keep a sense of humor through all this, even if it’s black humor.”
Posted by Bob Rehak on August 22, 2018
357 Days since Hurricane Harvey