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Creating Disaster-resistant Universities in the Caribbean

Thierry Lesales, David M. Simpson et Roy J. Human


Reconnaissant le niveau d’exposition élevé de la zone Caraïbe aux catastrophes d’origines naturelle et anthropique, l’article souligne la nécessité pour les établissements d’enseignement supérieur implantés dans la région à la fois d’optimiser leur niveau de préparation face aux catastrophes, et de définir des plans opérationnels de réduction des risques. Sur la base de leur expérience de l’initiative « Universités Résistantes aux Catastrophes », les auteurs suggèrent une méthodologie de planification préventive adaptée au contexte caraïbe. Une évaluation des risques en 4 étapes autorise la mise en place d’un plan de réduction des risques ; le plan ainsi adopté par les universités devra être associé à la mise en œuvre de simulations essentielles au développement des savoir-faire au sein même de l’établissement

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1In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina severely impacted the United States, causing an unprecedented amount of damage and disruption, a high death toll, population redistribution, and billions of dollars in losses. The disaster is a strong reminder of nature’s wrath and a call for efficient and anticipated mitigation and preparedness actions.

2Universities are not exempt from the direct impacts and the consequences of the disasters. According to a recent survey by the National Institutes of Health, 300 federally-funded research projects, valued at more than $150 million, were lost by colleges and universities in New Orleans because of hurricane Katrina (Medscape, 2005).

3The disruptions from Katrina were severe and will affect those institutions in the long-term. Tulane University, for instance, was able to officially reopen on January 17, 2006 for the Spring semester, but hundreds of faculty positions and many degree programs had to be eliminated in one of the largest-ever restructuring of a U.S. university (Kaiser, 2005).

4Besides hurricanes, other natural and man-made events can also cause dramatic losses and disturbances for the institutions of higher education.

5The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reports that a heat wave affecting New York City in July 1999 resulted in a major power outage. The electricity went out at Columbia University and was not completely restored for two to three days. Meanwhile, researchers at Columbia's College of Physicians and Surgeons lost irreplaceable research materials—human tissue, enzymes and cells—since they lacked sufficient back-up generators to keep freezers or incubators running. Damages to the $200 million research program were calculated at many millions of dollars (FEMA, 2003). The Northridge earthquake that struck the Los Angeles basin in January 1994 also damaged three universities. California State University, Northridge was hardest hit. Most buildings were damaged and the university was forced to close for one month. It was able to reopen to its 30,000 students with 450 temporary trailers serving as the only classrooms. Damages were estimated at $380 million (FEMA, 2003).

1. Vulnerable Universities in the Caribbean

6There are more than thirty academic institutions in the Caribbean. Some of them are spread over several islands such as the University of the West-Indies, with 3 main campuses in Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad. Others may be located on a single territory, but with multiple campuses, as with the University of Puerto-Rico, which has 11 sites. In the past decades, a new trend has developed in the region, with the installation of medical schools having strong ties to the continental United States. One example is the Ross University School of Medicine in Dominica, another example is the Veterinary School in St Kitts.

7The universities in the Caribbean are one of the major sources of development for the region. They offer local access to training and degree programs that otherwise would have to be obtained in the United States or Europe. The presence of the institutions of higher education on the islands and their activities translate directly into economic gains for the local communities.

8One concern facing the universities in the Caribbean is their exposure to natural disasters. The region is well-known for its vulnerability to the most destructive natural hazards : hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions have seriously impacted the area. Drought and social unrest can also cause noticeable disruptions on the islands.

9A statistical analysis of the data collected in the Emergency Disaster Database by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) outlines 393 disasters faced by Caribbean islands since 1900. The following table sorts those events by disaster type.

Table 1. Disaster types in the Caribbean since 1900

Disaster type



Wind Storm





















Wild Fires






Data source : EM-DAT : The OFDA/CRED International Disaster Database (November, 2006)

10The location of universities and the type of academic infrastructures can increase levels of exposure and vulnerability. In July 1995, the American University of the Caribbean was forced to evacuate its state-of-the art school of medicine in Montserrat, because of the unrest of the Soufrière Hills volcano. The university’s buildings had to be evacuated and remained closed for two years, before being destroyed by pyroclastic flows in 1997. The school has since relocated to a brand new facility on the neighboring island of St Maarten. The sudden interruption of a school program for an indefinite time can be challenging, not only for the students and academic staff, but also for the community where it is located.

11We must, however, make a distinction here between the locally-based and the foreign-based universities in the region. It seems that the latter can better adapt to adverse events. In the case of the American colleges, the schools can move the students and staff back to the United States, and use other facilities there. Ceaser (2005), studying the effects of hurricane Ivan on three universities in the Caribbean, points out how much more difficult the recovery is for local based institutions.

12Those examples of past experience strongly demonstrate how essential it is for academic institutions to be conscious of their vulnerability, and take mitigative actions to reduce the risks they are facing.

13In the 2000s, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) launched the Disaster Resistant Universities program, first as a pilot initiative and then expanded on a broader scale. The objective of the program was to help American academic institutions to assess their vulnerabilities and reduce the impacts of disasters, through proper mitigation measures and emergency planning at the university level.

14We believe this model could be useful and should be adapted for the academic institutions in the Caribbean.

2. A crucial risk assessment

15According to the United Nations International Strategy for Disasters Reduction (ISDR), risk is the probability of harmful consequences, or expected losses (deaths, injuries, property, livelihoods, economic activity disrupted or environment damaged) resulting from interactions between natural or human-induced hazards and vulnerable conditions.

16Conventionally, risk can be expressed by the notation:

  • Risk = ( Hazards x Vulnerability ) / Capacity.

  • Vulnerability is defined as a set of conditions and processes resulting from physical, social, economic, and environmental factors, which increase the susceptibility of a community to the impact of hazards.

  • Capacity is the combination of all the strengths and resources available within a community, society or organization that can reduce the level of risk, or the effects of a disaster.

  • Assessing the risks at the university level is a four steps process. The steps suggested by FEMA can be adapted according to the level and quality of information and resources available at the institution. They can be implemented through a digital GIS-based system or using simple paper maps.

  • First, it is necessary to identify the hazards, that is to say the potentially damaging physical events, phenomena or human activity that may cause the loss of life or injury, property damage, social and economic disruption or environmental degradation.

  • The next step is to establish hazard profiles that include the magnitude, geographical areas potentially affected, and the frequency of the identified phenomena. The hazard profile also provides the opportunity to collect descriptions of historical events. This very important phase must lead to the design of hazard maps, as well as the definition of various scenarios.

  • In the third step, it is necessary to take an inventory of all university assets, including their insured and uninsured values. Inventories should reflect, where possible, the value of research that may not show up in insured tables, such as years of tissue or blood samples that are irreplaceable.

  • Finally, depending on the university’s location, it is possible to determine potential losses based on the intensity of the hazards and the characteristics of the institution’s buildings and their use.

17There are three types of potential losses to be considered:

  • Life

  • Property (structure and content)

  • Function

18A temporal dimension of vulnerability can also be taken into account. Based on the time of the day or year, the level of occupancy of the buildings differs greatly. Experience shows that on a campus, it is difficult to closely monitor the whereabouts of students, faculty and staff. This uncertainty can cause challenges for search and rescue operations in the event of a disaster.

19Using the risk assessment and analysis, together with the participation of stakeholders, the process of building a disaster resistant university will reach its peak with the creation and adoption of a hazard mitigation plan for the university. Such a plan sets objectives and actions to be implemented in order to prevent and/or reduce the adverse effects of hazards. It also reinforces the capacity of the institution to cope with a future disaster. Capacity building is enhanced through regular tabletop exercises and drills.

Conclusion: Improving Resilience

20The implementation of a multi-hazard mitigation plan benefits the Caribbean universities, through the reduction of losses and disruption from disasters. Increasing resilience can, in turn, positively impact the neighboring communities. The disaster-ready university can act as a focal point, providing assistance to communities in case of a disaster.

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Ceaser M. 2005. - Ivan's Aftermath - Lessons learned by Caribbean universities following last year's big hurricane, in : Chronicle of Higher Education, Sept. 2005, Vol. 52, Issue 5.

EM-DAT : The OFDA/CRED International Disaster Database - - Université Catholique de Louvain - Brussels – Belgium.

FEMA. 2003. Building a Disaster Resistant University. FEMA Report 443. Washington: FEMA, 68 p.

MEDSCAPE MEDICAL NEWS. 2005. Research Lost in Katrina Flood: A Newsmaker Interview With Paul K. Whelton, MD, PhD – in: Medscape Medical news, November 2005.

Simpson D.M., Human R.J. and al. 2005. Improving Risk Assessment Methodology: The University of Louisville and the Disaster Resistant University (DRU) Program." Working Paper # 05-03.

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Thierry Lesales, David M. Simpson et Roy J. Human, « Creating Disaster-resistant Universities in the Caribbean »Études caribéennes [En ligne], 7 | Août 2007, mis en ligne le 15 août 2007, consulté le 29 novembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Thierry Lesales

Attaché de recherches, University of Louisville

Articles du même auteur

David M. Simpson

Associate Professor, Director, Center for Hazards Research and Policy Development – The Urban Studies Institute, University of Louisville

Roy J. Human

Project Manager, Center for Hazards Research and Policy Development – The Urban Studies Institute, University of Louisville

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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