Professionals Recall Experiences as Hurricane Season Begins

As the June 1 official hurricane season approaches, it’s timely to recall hurricanes from just the past three years. There was Florence last year; Harvey, Maria, and Irma in 2017; and Matthew in 2016. Another one, from 2017, is remembered at the University of North Carolina–Wilmington, though not for its devastation. It was called Zephyr. 

The fictional Category 5 hurricane was a preparedness exercise that involved 14 North Carolina campuses, the most for a drill of this kind in the state’s history. It included physically evacuating students by bus from the Wilmington campus, and according to Larry Wray, executive director of campus life at UNC–Wilmington, the drill uniquely prepared the campus and student union for planning and responding to Hurricane Florence, which closed the campus for nearly a month last year and caused about $140 million in damage. 

“We were all in agreement that Zephyr was incredibly helpful, but we didn’t think we’d be putting those things into practice that soon,” Wray said. “But by practicing, rehearsing, and thinking through the logistics, we were then able to put many valuable lessons to work in that real-life response.” 

In preparation for Florence, the entire Wilmington campus literally powered down. Fisher Student Center, Fisher University Union, the Burney Center, and Warwick Center ballroom and offices were completely shut down. Campus power and information technology networks were turned off, facilities and fixtures were secured, as were outdoor seating areas. Waterproofing was conducted on technology and equipment. 

“We removed and stored all of our interior art collections, dry stored as much of our concessions as possible, consolidated frozen foods in freezers with emergency generator power. We circulated external hard drives to update data storage and secured those in water-tight, disaster-proof storage, or we traveled with them upon evacuation,” Wray recalled. 

But even with planning, preparation, and extraordinary precautions, Wray admitted one can never be completely prepared: “As ready as we were for the preparation and response, the storm and its unique impacts, and the necessary long closure taught us a great deal about recovery and campus reopening phases.” 

One issue exacerbated by the length of the shutdown was the challenge of refueling emergency generators. If it had not been for preplanning where generators would be located at protected sites during the storm and then how teams would be able to access and refuel them during post-storm flooding, tons of frozen foods would have been ruined. 

At one point close to 1,000 contractors were doing remediation on campus, walking around in white hazmat suits.  

“They came in and wiped down and cleaned all the upholstered seats in the ballrooms, restacked them, and two days later we had mold regrowth again,” Wray said. 

Another remediation issue related to flooding was air quality. Not only is upholstered furniture at risk, but so are items like wooden fixtures, equipment not in direct contact with flood waters, and just about anything that could be negatively impacted by high humidity. To combat high humidity, extremely hot air was pumped into building spaces to aid in the drying process and work in coordination with dehumidifiers.  

Steven McCullar, an assistant professor of higher education administration at St. Cloud State University, and Jason Meier, director of student engagement and leadership at Emerson College, were both professional staff at the Louisiana State University Student Union when Katrina hit in 2005. McCullar was associate director of the union and Meier was assistant director of programs. They both agreed with Wray that you simply cannot plan for everything.

“How do you plan for having helicopters and tanks on campus? It’s such a time of trauma and intense confusion; our students were being resilient by simply getting out of bed and living,” Meier said. “What I learned was that sometimes you have to forget about policy and protocol, and you help people first. Nothing can teach you to be prepared or to be able to anticipate some of this.” 

In Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University was closed for only one week while Tulane University, in New Orleans, shut down for the semester. LSU served as a giant rescue site, with its basketball arena becoming the largest triage center in the United States since the Civil War, its track and field house became a massive hospital, and the agricultural show arena an animal rescue center. Professional staffers like Meier and students often worked 48 and 72 hours straight at the rescue sites. 

“You live so much in the moment during a crisis,” said McCullar, who went on to write his dissertation about the Katrina event. “But you also have to have your long-term goals, your mission, in mind.” 

The dissertation, “Crisis Management Post-Hurricane Katrina: A Qualitative Study of a Higher Education Institution’s Administrators’ Response to Crisis Management,” noted significant differences in perceptions between administrators involved with the emergency center and those who were not. It also identified discrepancies between those who were considered essential personnel and those who were not. 

At LSU, the student union served for a time as a communications center for law enforcement and emergency management personnel, and those same people used a ballroom as sleeping quarters. McCullar said that made sense. 

“I still believe the union is the heart of the campus, the living room of the campus, and that’s what outsiders and family members know as well,” he said. “That makes it a great place for a central communications and command center, and quite often it is going to be a place that has facilities, foods services, and space. It would also be a good call to have your union director on your campus crisis team because they are going to see a lot of students.” 

At UNC–Wilmington, academics took priority, and union ballrooms and student center spaces became classrooms, which meant alternative spaces had to be leveraged for events and organizations. 

“We focused on weekend programming to provide campus connections and mental health breaks, and we offered extracurricular, academic-focused programming like films, lectures, and panels during the week which could be used by instructors as course supplements to make up required academic time,” Wray said. 

Besides an ideal location for a communications and command center, student unions, which often are already outfitted with emergency generators, commonly serve as sites for tornado shelters that can be made available to the entire community. Tarleton State University’s Thompson Student Center and Oklahoma State University’s student center have both provided shelter beyond the campus community during tornadoes, and the basement and ground floors of some student centers have been approved as safe spaces for thousands of people to shelter at during tornadoes. 

In these cases, the student center goes beyond the “living room of the campus” metaphor and evolves instead into a home away from home. When Hurricane Michael knocked out power at Elon University in North Carolina last year students found the Moseley Student Center as the place to charge phones and laptops, get meals, and sleep overnight thanks to it having a standalone generator. Student and professional staff kept the center open day and night, and blankets and pillows were made available to members of the campus community who needed a place to stay. When an ice storm hit the campus in 2014, more than 150 students slept overnight in Moseley. 

Last year Florence closed over 20 colleges in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia; Hurricane Michael closed 10 in Florida; Katrina closed 14 in 2005; and wildfires in California in 2017 and 2018 closed more than a dozen campuses. In 2017 alone the disasters that included hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, and the 2017 Northern California wildfires, led the U.S Department of Education to make $175 million available to the nearly 50 affected colleges and universities. 

Student assistance programs that provide everything from gas cards and food to mental health services are usually the first to see a spike in requests for service. In North Carolina, Pitt Community College’s counseling services department saw an uptick in requests made for both counseling and basic resources through its Goess Student Center offices after Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Similarly, the California State University system noted an almost 50% increase in requests for psychological services after the 2017 Northern California fires. 

McCullar said one of the hardest decisions he had to make as LSU reopened after Katrina was rejecting student requests to cancel late-night programming events scheduled for when students returned. 

“The union was open but the school wasn’t yet, but we were close to coming back, and the program was a big deal at the time. … We’d easily have a couple thousand students come out for an event,” he said. “It had been two weeks where students had been volunteering, dealing with death and depression and all these miserable things, and we just had to recognize that we’re all stressed out and that our students are going to need an escape. We knew they’d need to come to the union, to get some pizza, go bowling, so we had the event and we had 1,500 come out.” 

While hurricanes are by far the most frequent and destructive type of natural disaster seen in North America, the frequency and cost of all natural disaster events—wildfires, floods, tornados, earthquakes, droughts, hailstorms—is one reason surveys by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communications show the number of U.S. adults alarmed about climate change at an all-time high (29% in February, up from 21% in March 2018 and 14.5% in 2013). Responding to those concerns, higher education institutions have taken a leading role in creating and participating in several national information-sharing emergency response and management programs. These include the National Weather Service’s StormReady designation held by 254 universities and colleges, the Disaster-Resistant University qualification standard created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Disaster Resilient Universities Network. Each of these resources can become an aid in the need for campuses to continuously review and update their preparedness plans. 

Students Stepping Up

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a group of Louisiana State University students compelled to respond to the community’s needs formed a student organization with the mission of promoting and coordinating volunteer efforts and building community partnerships.  

“It all started with a group of about eight students who had been volunteering during Katrina to help people with medical special needs,” recalled LSU Associate Dean of Students and Campus Life Director Jacob Brumfield. “They were doing that service when they realized they wanted to create a robust set of programs that weren’t just waiting for the next natural disaster to happen, but instead would have an impact beyond just response.” 

That initial effort blossomed into what is now Volunteer LSU, a student-led volunteer organization with an $80,000 annual budget from student fees. The group does community work year-round in and around Baton Rouge. Cemetery clean-ups, community greening projects, tutoring programs, disaster recovery and response, food bank partnerships, and support to smaller area colleges and universities are just a few of the regular projects that have involved thousands of Volunteer LSU students over the years. Brumfield said the organization has even served as an incubator for other service organizations that now operate alternative spring breaks, coordinate food pantries, and organize single-event service plunges that can involve up to 1,000 students. 

At the University of North Carolina–Wilmington, members of the university’s student-run newspaper and website, The Seahawk, recognized that Hurricane Florence might represent the single most defining event in some of their fellow students’ lives. Prior to the hurricane making landfall the news site produced a few stories about the brewing storm. It was after everyone was evacuated from Wilmington and scattered to locations far and wide that the staff realized it was an unmatched storytelling opportunity.  

“We were forced to cover the hurricane from afar and rely on community members who had stayed behind to supply us with information on what was happening in a city that had effectively become an island,” said The Seahawk Editor in Chief Noah Thomas. “We dedicated our October print issue exclusively to Florence coverage, and it won a national Best of Show award at the Associated Collegiate Press convention in Louisville.” 

The Seahawk also afforded the student body an opportunity to speak to their own concerns, conditions, and challenges after Florence through a longstanding blog called Humans of the Dub. The column centers around The Seahawk staffers going into the community and offering students, faculty, and others an opportunity to tell their own story, often anonymously. 

“Coverage opportunities arose organically because that was literally the only thing anyone could talk about for months,” Thomas said. 

Humans of the Dub gave students a place to talk about the challenges of staying in school, of coming back to school having lost all their belongings, and about the trials and tribulations of their families during and after the hurricane. In all, The Seahawk published at least 15 articles related to Florence, the majority being reflections by students.


  • Steve Chaplin

    Steve Chaplin is managing editor of ACUI’s The Bulletin and manager of the ACUI College Union and Student Activities (CUSA) Evaluation Program. A former newspaper writer, editor, and manager, he has volunteered as a student mentor as a member of the National Association of Science Writers, and received awards for his writing and reporting from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the Kentucky Education Association, and the Kentucky Press Association.

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