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Monday, November 11, 2019 — Houston, TX 35°

Rice Crisis Management should have issued notifications during Deer Park fire

Illustrated by Dalia Gulca

By Thresher Editorial Board     3/26/19 10:00pm

A cloud often hangs over the student body as it returns from spring break. Usually, that’s a product of mixing Frio 6.0, Red Bull and sunshine. This year, though, that cloud was the result of a massive fire at a chemical storage facility on the bank of the Houston Ship Channel.

The plume was visible from suburbs of San Antonio. It dominated the Houston skyline and caught the attention of national media outlets. 

Despite the fire’s magnitude, Rice’s Crisis Management Team provided the Rice community with no information about this high-profile disaster. Students and faculty rely upon the university for information — both when situations aren’t safe and when they are. No official statement or text alert regarding outside air quality left community members unsure of whether or not they should be taking precautions.

Rice’s Crisis Management Team should have have reached out immediately through text and email alerts, assuring the community they were tracking the situation. They should have then used this alert system to send updates on the latest from local authorities if the situation changed. 

A March 21 article in the Texas Medical Center News encouraged people in the medical center area with respiratory issues to wear masks in response to the fire and that they should contact health professionals if they experienced symptoms like coughing, difficulty breathing or skin irritation in the days after the fire. This is pertinent information to some members of the Rice community, and it was never communicated by the Crisis Management Team. Harris County officials warned residents not to touch ash that may have fallen from the plume — a warranted concern given the toxic materials that went up in smoke — but this information never reached most Rice students.

The Rice community doesn’t just include those in Houston. It includes family members who, upon seeing the news, also sought out answers about safety on campus. Given the national nature and the spread of misinformation in the wake of the fire, Rice should have kept family members updated on social media, just as they did during Hurricane Harvey, even if the only message was that everyone was safe. 

Though the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s air monitors have shown no reason for Rice students to be concerned, this information was never disseminated by Rice. After the fire, authorities ordered Deer Park residents to shelter in place because of a benzene release. Crisis management should have informed the community that the cloud was not expected to reach Rice’s campus. 

Ultimately, communication is needed not only to alert in times of emergency but also to comfort in times of uncertainty. The Crisis Management Team should have been there to reassure community members and their families that the air was breathable. 

Unsigned editorials represent the consensus view of the Thresher Editorial Board. If you’d like to respond to this or anything else you’ve seen in the Thresher, email thresher-ops@rice.edu.

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