T. Ford-Ahmed was in her car, driving to teach her morning public relations class at West Virginia State College, when she heard a caller on a radio show saying an airplane had flown into the World Trade Center.
The DJ laughed, but it soon became clear that the caller was serious. When she arrived on campus, Ford-Ahmed immediately ran into the student TV studio. Everyone was watching. She ran up to her classroom. Her students were watching, too. "Some began crying," Ford-Ahmed said. "You could tell the hysteria was building.... At first, we heard that the plane that went down in Pennsylvania had gone down in Morgantown. So we thought the colleges were under attack." Then one student asked the question: "What if they hit the chemical plant next?"
WVSC sits right next door to the Bayer plant, which makes agricultural chemicals. From time to time, chemical plants or tankers leak toxic fumes, and people nearby must seal themselves in their homes until the poisons dissipate. But what if there was a full-fledged terrorist attack, the class wondered. Would people know how to survive?
Ford-Ahmed asked her students whether they knew how to "shelter-in-place." "Out of about 45 students, about two held up their hands," she said. "That's when the textbook went in the garbage." It was, after all, a public relations class. The students decided to teach themselves, by embarking on a public relations campaign: teaching the people of the Kanawha Valley how to shelter-in-place. It started in a class of 45 beginner-level students. Then, Gov. Bob Wise's office got in on the act, and asked the students to help promote a disaster handbook titled "Getting Ready" that is ready to be distributed to everyone in West Virginia.
Now, the word has gotten around about WVSC's public relations students. A Toledo, Ohio, marketing firm just contracted with them to do publicity for a client that wants an organization in every state to plant a tree at the same time. "It all emerged," Ford-Ahmed said, "from that fateful morning." Knowing how to survive Immediately after Sept. 11, the students divided into teams. Each team came up with a campaign to teach people about sheltering in place. Then they voted on the best campaign. The winner? "Sh.I.P. Happens" — short for "shelter in place." Another class of Ford-Ahmed's, a class of advanced students, carried out the campaign. It included a how-to movie that is being shown to every class at WVSC this month.
Research proved what the students had suspected: Few of their peers knew or cared about sheltering in place. They didn't know where the shelters on campus were. Dionne Clifton, one of Ford-Ahmed's students, knew about sheltering in place only because she lived in the dorms. "We had drills," said Clifton, who is from Ohio. "Although why we were doing it was not really explained." Locals, on the other hand, usually know about chemical leaks. But they don't usually know about sheltering in place, Clifton said. "Two years ago, during homecoming, we had a leak," she said. "I was walking to my car. I looked at the plant and I thought, 'Boy, there's a lot of smoke coming from the plant.' Then the siren went off. "There was a busload of people standing outside. A couple of people ran inside, but the rest were just standing there." After students see the public relations film this month, Ford-Ahmed's students will conduct a follow-up survey, to see if it taught their peers anything. "A couple of the students I've talked to seem more secure," Clifton said. "If something happens, they'll be able to survive." Every disaster need Monday night, WVSC students filmed a TV public service announcement for the governor's "Getting Ready" handbook. It should start airing within the next week or two, along with some radio announcements. The 32-page booklet covers every imaginable disaster need: What to say to children, what to do with pets, recognizing suspicious mail, packing an evacuation kit. Student Jill Oxley has packed her kit. "Buy food with a long shelf life, but don't put it on a shelf," she said. "Those suitcases with handles and wheels are great, and they're usually sitting empty in the closet. Put your food in it." Oxley learned the hard way that plastic water bottles leak easily. Plastic 2-liter pop bottles are better — a point made in the handbook. The handbook is far more detailed than similar publications put out by Washington and Atlanta, Ford-Ahmed said. "I really think this should be a national model," she said. Booklets are available at county emergency offices or on the Internet at www.state.wv.us/wvoes
. To contact staff writer Tara Tuckwiller, use e-mail or call 348-5189.