Officials at Butte College gathered one fall Wednesday in 2018 for a tabletop exercise in disaster planning.

As California’s fire seasons had become more deadly, utilities were threatening to shut off power as a way of preventing downed lines from igniting blazes. Other catastrophes, such as school shootings, were also on officials’ minds.

Administrators at the rural community college wanted to be prepared. They mapped out potential scenarios: What if they had to close the campus? How would they continue classes?

They had no idea they’d be putting those plans into action the very next day, when they’d be facing the most destructive blaze in California history.

Even before the coronavirus brought a halt to in-person classes nationwide this spring, some colleges and universities had confronted climate-linked natural disasters with the same dramatic effects.

And while there’s been endless speculation during this pandemic about what might happen to students whose educations are being abruptly disrupted, these colleges offer real-life examples of the impact of campus shutdowns. The fires, hurricanes, floods and other emergencies that have been occurring with increasing frequency not only pose threats to lives and homes; at some colleges temporarily shut down by these disasters, they have decreased enrollment, slowed students’ progress toward graduation and deprived faculty and staff of income when they needed it most.

Many of those same universities and colleges also became lifelines for students and for their larger communities after the disasters.

When it comes to crises that can bring a campus to a halt, said Marvin Pratt, director of environmental health and safety at California State University, Chico, which was closed for two weeks by the Camp Fire, “All of us have learned that no one is immune.”

Smoke from the Camp Fire, burning in the Feather River Canyon near Paradise, Calif., darkens the sky above the Butte College sig in Oroville, Calif., Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Don Thompson)
Smoke from the Camp Fire darkens the sky above the Butte College sign, Nov. 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Don Thompson)

“We all lost something”

The morning after Butte College’s training exercise, Andy Suleski, the school’s vice president of administration, was heading down Highway 99 to the campus. The wind had picked up, and he checked his phone messages to see if a power shut-off was on the way. Then he saw the giant plume of smoke.

By the time Suleski reached the college’s parking lot and climbed out of his car, ashes were raining down. It was the first day of the Camp Fire, which would kill 85 people in the town of Paradise and its surrounding communities and displace thousands more.

It closed the Butte College campus for more than two weeks, and cost the school nearly $6.5 million, officials say.

“It didn’t matter if you lived in a shack or a mansion, we all lost something,” said Dayna Collett, a student who also works in the college’s student success center, and whose home was destroyed.

Nearly a quarter of Butte College students reported experiencing homelessness at some point before the fires, and more than 800 more faced displacement afterward. Staff from the college’s basic needs center set up shop in parking lots, distributing laptops, gas gift cards and information about mental health counseling. The college let students drop classes without financial penalties. 

“It all coalesced into one big question: What do our students need right now to finish the semester and stay in school?” said Dawn Blackhorse, a student success specialist at the college.

At colleges like Butte, where some students are already struggling to afford such things as food, housing and health care, a shutdown only magnifies that challenge.

In the wake of the 2017 Tubbs Fire in California’s wine country, a Santa Rosa Junior College poll revealed how many students were suffering from stress and needed mental health services, said President Frank Chong. More than a quarter reported experiencing a mental or physical health problem as a result of the fire.

“When you’re going through that type of trauma, you don’t think there’s anybody else in that situation, or that nobody cares,” Chong said. Sending the survey, he said, was also a way for the college to say, “We care about you. Tell us how we can help.”

After Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, Houston Community College dispersed more than $7 million in federal financial aid to students earlier than they normally would have received it, said Shar-day Campbell, communications coordinator for the financial aid office.

Despite such efforts, many students at campuses that were temporarily closed dropped out, something administrators fear will happen again now as the pandemic affects earnings and makes people want to stick closer to home. Butte has seen its enrollment drop by 12 percent since the fire, according to college president Samia Yaqub, while the Tubbs Fire contributed to a 6 percent enrollment drop at Santa Rosa. 

Students deliver a produce donation to the basic needs center at Chico State University on February 12, 2020. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
Students deliver a produce donation to the basic needs center at Chico State University on February 12, 2020. The hunger relief organization Feeding America brought food to the center weekly in the aftermath of the Camp Fire. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Enrollment doesn’t always drop off after a shutdown; at Chico State and California State University, Sonoma, it held steady in the wake of wildfires.

But when it does fall, the effect can be dramatic: After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, undergraduate enrollment declined from nearly 188,000 to 170,000, according to the island’s higher education agency, with many students leaving for the mainland and others dropping out altogether. The University of Puerto Rico’s 11 campuses faced $132 million in structural damage. And as government funding also fell, tuition doubled.

A long recovery

Unlike with recent floods and wildfires, the effects of the coronavirus aren’t limited to a particular geographic area. But like those localized disasters, the pandemic is projected to leave colleges strapped for cash, with demand for all kinds of services skyrocketing as endowment earnings plummet and state budgets are likely to be cut.

Perhaps the closest recent parallel to the pandemic is Hurricane Katrina, which affected more than 50,000 college students, damaging and closing campuses in the southeastern U.S. during the fall semester of 2005. Seventy-four percent of New Orleans college students reported that their academic performance had declined, and 36 percent withdrew from classes.

Enrollment at some community colleges fell to less than half of pre-Katrina levels. Students who had to move frequently or work full-time to support themselves and their families were less likely to come back to school.

The hurricane cost New Orleans colleges and universities an estimated $1.5 billion in building repairs, lost tuition and payroll expenses.

University officials often think of bouncing back from a disaster like the Camp Fire in terms of weeks or months, said Megan Kurtz, a community liaison at Chico State. In reality, she said, “this is a 15- or 20-year recovery.”

A year and a half after the fire, oak trees and grass have again turned the hill behind Butte College’s main campus, once barren and sooty, a healthy green. But even as more students’ living situations have stabilized, some say they are just now beginning to cope with trauma they had previously bottled up.

Mackenzie Bryan, a communications major at Butte College, sits for a portrait in the college library. After losing her family’s home in the fire, Bryan made a video interviewing her classmates about their own experiences of loss. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
Mackenzie Bryan, a communications major at Butte College, sits for a portrait in the college library. After losing her family’s home in the fire, Bryan made a video interviewing her classmates about their own experiences of loss. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Communication studies major Mackenzie Bryan lost her home in the fire, bouncing from hotel to hotel for four months. Today she lives with her family in a condo and is getting ready to transfer to a four-year college.

“I can talk about [the fire] openly,” Bryan said, “but I haven’t fully processed it yet. Now it’s more dealing with it psychologically than physically.”

The college has filled a previously empty position for a full-time mental health counselor, and plans to hire a second one soon. While many campus health centers focus on short-term counseling, limiting students to a handful of visits, Butte is experimenting with a special 12-week program designed to address post-traumatic stress disorder     .

It’s not the only campus to ramp up its mental health services in the wake of a disruption. At Sonoma State, demand for counseling grew by more than 50 percent in fall 2017, the semester the Tubbs Fire closed the campus for a week; the university called in therapists from other Cal State campuses to help.

Even though enrollment has declined at Butte, demand for basic needs services continues to grow, something that is also likely to happen in the wake of the pandemic. About 250 students visited the campus basic needs resource center each week before the fire; by the beginning of 2020, more than 1,000 were doing so, and the campus had added a basic needs satellite location.  

Catherine Osby, a single mother of two studying art and psychology, said she was stopping by the satellite pantry — which offered fresh vegetables, snacks and a place to study — two to three times a week early this semester. “It helps a lot to know this is here, in case me and my kids are running out of food stamps,” she said.

Outside help — in this case, donations of food and supplies that used to come in by the truckload — eventually trails off, however.

“Now that people are just getting back on their feet, there’s nothing to help them,” Collett said. “It’s heartbreaking and it’s scary.”

Many of the same circumstances that disrupt students’ lives during a disaster affect faculty and staff, too.

With the Camp Fire raging, Butte College president Yaqub put employees, including hourly workers, on paid leave.

“One of the things that we learned is to find a way to help faculty and staff employees immediately, and a very tangible way to do that is to make sure that they continue to get paid,” Yaqub said.

Butte College President Dr. Samia Yaqub walks across campus on February 12, 2020. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Butte College President Samia Yaqub. “One of the things that we learned is to find a way to help faculty and staff employees immediately, and a very tangible way to do that is to make sure that they continue to get paid,” she says. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Other colleges navigating emergencies have taken similar steps. After Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, Houston Community College created a new class of leave that faculty and staff could use for errands such as meeting with flood insurance adjusters. Most recently, the University of California has given workers, including students, affected by coronavirus closures several additional weeks of paid leave.

Campuses have also provided support to their wider communities.

During and after the California wildfires and Hurricane Harvey, colleges organized food pantries and clothing drives. Butte College staff helped students’ relatives and other community members fill out applications for Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, assistance. At Santa Rosa Junior College, students in the culinary program prepared meals for local residents and first responders.

Houston Community College distributed 150,000 pounds of food to the community when Harvey hit, used one of its warehouses to shelter about 500 refugees and has since inventoried its buildings to see which could be used as distribution centers for food and supplies in future disasters, college administrators said. Universities in California and around the country have offered empty residence halls to emergency personnel and set up temporary medical facilities for coronavirus patients.

It’s increasingly common for colleges and universities to provide such services to neighbors after a disaster, said Wendy Walsh, higher education program manager for FEMA. “These universities, there’s not a wall around them,” she said. “They’re part of the community.”

Butte College officials said lending the campus to emergency responders was the one thing that saved it from the Camp Fire. The flames had licked all the way up to the staff parking lot, Suleski said. Fire crews using the campus as a command center beat them back.

Now, “if we ever get an opportunity to serve as a staging site, we’re the first ones to put our hands up,” he said.

Building a resilient campus

The demands of this new disaster-rife era have led more and more colleges to focus on the idea of the resilient campus — one that can anticipate, prepare for and respond to disasters.

In 2017, the nonprofit National Council for Science and the Environment launched a network of universities to share disaster-related research and compare notes on recovery efforts. More than 170 universities participated in an inaugural conference in November 2019, according to the council’s executive director, Michelle Wyman. They’re also building an online platform that will allow researchers to communicate with each other and with local and federal emergency management agencies in real time as disasters unfold.

Research conducted by some universities in the network has changed the course of local disasters. After the Tubbs Fire devastated California’s wine country, a system of fire surveillance cameras designed in part by researchers at Sonoma State helped firefighters monitor a subsequent wildfire, the Kincade Fire. A Chico State anthropologist led a team of student and staff researchers to identify the remains of residents who had perished in the Camp Fire. Many universities have now pivoted most lab research to focus on studying the coronavirus.

A student walks across campus at Chico State University on February 12, 2020. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
The campus of California State University, Chico, which was closed for two weeks by the Camp Fire. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Colleges and universities are also adapting their curricula to the new normal, developing training programs that can provide workers to help with rebuilding — and jobs for disaster survivors. Butte College trained 2,000 debris removal workers, Yaqub said, many of whom had lost their jobs and homes in the fires. The college also launched six-month certificate programs in construction, refrigeration and heating, ventilation and air conditioning to meet local building demands.

At Chico State, social work students are learning how to help families develop disaster plans. The university has even started a forest therapy program that trains teachers and mental health providers how to help traumatized residents heal through immersion in natural environments.

Similar training programs are already being planned for people who have lost their jobs in the pandemic lockdowns.

The coronavirus era

The coronavirus pandemic has put all colleges’ emergency plans to the test, reminding them that “it’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when,” said Joyce Lopes, director of the emergency operations center at Sonoma State.

In just the last three years, that university has weathered two wildfires, power outages that closed the campus for several days and a closure due to smoke from a fire elsewhere. Administrators have learned that they need to train at least three people for each key disaster management role, Lopes said. That way, employees can work in shifts to avoid burnout.

“These are often things that go on the back burner,” she said. “Now people understand why we need to make time to do it.”

While it’s too soon to tell how the pandemic will affect the futures of today’s college students, a survey just after campuses were closed by the coronavirus found that 17 percent lacked reliable and safe housing, 28 percent did not have access to healthy food and 75 percent had higher levels of anxiety, depression and stress. More than half had been laid off from their jobs or had hours significantly cut back.

If there’s a silver lining to this catastrophe-prone era, it’s that disasters focus students’ attention on social problems such as climate change and inequality, said Chong, the Santa Rosa Junior College president.

“I see this is an opportunity for our students to see how to make a difference, and challenge them to address some of these issues in a way that we weren’t successful in doing in our previous generation.”

This story was produced by CalMatters and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact CalMatters with any commentary questions:

Felicia Mello covers the state's economic divide. Prior to this role, she was editor for CalMatters' College Journalism Network, a collaboration with student journalists across California to cover higher...