The storm clouds rolled into Oxford late Tuesday afternoon, and the campus began to panic. Students didn’t know what was coming, but no one in authority seemed in any rush to ease the concern or devise a plan of action for what the maps so colorfully depicted heading toward our home.
The sirens screeched their warning part of Tuesday night and a good portion of Wednesday, scaring most everyone while not informing anyone. Something was coming, but any further details were unknown. Televisions across the state were tuned to their respective news and weather channels, trying to decide what action to take and what preparations needed to be made.
Still, no one on campus knew what was coming, but questions began to formulate.
Do we still go to class if we can’t see the roads? What if we can’t even walk outside without being blown over or beaten with baseball-sized hail?
For years, we have been told to make sure the administration has our cell phone numbers on file so that in case of an emergency, they can alert everyone on campus immediately.
In the course of the past 24 hours, we received three RebAlerts, all informing us that there was indeed a tornado watch in affect for Lafayette County. However, none of us were informed of any warnings.
Noel Wilkin, Associate Provost and member of the Crisis Action team, said the RebAlert system used to be in use for both watches and warnings but believes the sirens are a more effective and immediate solution. After it was learned that the text message was often received after the warning had expired, one of The DM cartoonists depicted a tornado leaving campus while the students stood in a pile of rubble reading their RebAlerts.
The alerts for the watches are a must, but what good are they without a follow-up? If we are informed of one problem, we need to be updated on the status, especially if the weather is escalating.
We hear the sirens, but they don’t tell us what to do.
Students were informed Wednesday morning that when the sirens were heard, everyone needed to be indoors. Once the sirens had stopped for five minutes, it was then OK to leave the buildings.
However, not everyone was properly informed of this, and every building had its own way of dealing with the storm.
Students who sought shelter in the Turner Center were told they had to go to the basement if they were going to stay, but they were not required to actually stay inside.
Part of the Residential College was told to go to their classes, while another portion was warned against leaving the building.
Tuesday night, some students were kicked out of classes because of the sirens.
Others were informed that they could leave, but that they would not have the opportunity to make up the material.
The mixed signals and unclear messages didn’t cause anything but more confusion, and the lack of authority and confidence from the faculty didn’t help the situation.
Every Wednesday like clockwork, the sirens are tested and a message is played to inform everyone that is only a test and to continue on with their lives. This option was not utilized and could have been the cure for much of the confusion and terror.
We commend the faculty for trying to help with the situation, but it was clear that many were just as confused and scared without a coherent leader as we were.
Many students reported not getting any specific information from a University-related organization until our staff began putting updates on Twitter Wednesday morning.
When did concern for student safety leave?
Tree branches and large objects still litter the roads and sidewalks from the torrential downpour and over 30 mph winds. False rivers and ponds have formed all over the county from the days of heavy rain.
There have been 11 confirmed storm-related deaths and more than 40 injuries, ranging from Choctow to Yazoo, and local officials believe the numbers may increase. One casualty has even been reported in our own Lafayette County.
Ethel Young-Minor said it is policy to restrict students to the building in case of a warning, and she enforced this policy at the Residential College Wednesday, despite students being told to attend their 2 p.m. classes since the warning from the National Weather Service lasted until 2:45 p.m.
“When I am in doubt about a safety concern, I try to err on the side of caution and treat students as I would want someone to treat my own children,” Young-Minor said.
We have fire drills often, to prepare students and prevent chaos. Every student and faculty member on this campus knows exactly what to do when the fire alarms go off, but few know the proper routine for tornadoes.
This is Mississippi weather.
According to the PDF created by the University, there were 42 tornadoes in Mississippi in 2010, with the state average being 28.
The PDF also clearly outlines what will happen when we are put under a watch or warning, along with how to take cover.
However, how many people have a flyer in their hand when a tornado strikes?
While we respect the effort of the Crisis Action Team, there is no reason why we cannot be sent an email or text message with similar instructions during the time of the emergency.
If this weather is normal to our part of the country, we should be more prepared to handle such a situation. We have multiple fire drills a year, but tornado drills do not seem to be as important.
It is the University’s responsibility to inform those out-of-state and international students who have never experienced typical tornado weather on how to take cover and stay safe by more than a flyer they might catch a glimpse of in passing. Weather is unpredictable. Even the most skilled technology and trained meteorologist can predict it wrong, and we understand that.
The fact still remains that even if the predictions are wrong, and the weather misses us like it fortunately did (for the most part) in the past 24 hours, we still need to be prepared to warn students in advance what will happen if the weather does become a hazard, not in the middle of the funnel cloud.
We believe the University needs to utilize the technology we have to the fullest extent and to prepare students and faculty more before the next situation gets here.
The storm has finally passed, and the damage cannot be undone. The most we can hope for now is that we as a community will learn from this experience and be more prepared next April when tornado season rolls back around.
@ The Daily Mississippian — Oxford, Miss.