Hurricane or hurri-vacation?

With little more than drizzle, Florence left many questioning the system that calls for evacuation

Moving further south than first forecasted, the mandatory evacuation from campus following Hurricane Florence has led many CNU students to take advantage of what they have deemed a “hurri-vacation.” There have been many reports of students picking up shifts from their hometown jobs, catching up on homework, or simply relaxing and watching Netflix. For many at CNU, the impact of Florence has been a welcome one. Even still, this event provided a first-hand experience of an emergency response from the University. This has led to many questions among the campus. The following will provide answers to these questions by covering, step-by-step, the response to emergency weather situations.

Florence: A timeline

Two days before expected landfall: 9:20 a.m. Sept. 11, a CNU Alert is sent to students already anticipating closure. Following the mandatory evacuation of Zone A, a mere four blocks from campus, and the voluntary evacuation of ODU, a sister institution of CNU, this alert was an expected one. 

Resident Assistants jolted into action, meeting mere hours later to discuss the closing of buildings and to communicate to their residents the proper protocol they should follow—unplug fridges, move belongings off of the floor, close and lock windows, take important documents and medications, and cover electronics in plastic. 

One day before expected landfall: The University is evacuated at 11:00 a.m. on Sept. 12, with emergencypersonnel evacuated only a few hours later. The University remains occupied, however, by the Newport News community as the Freeman Center transforms into an emergency shelter.

Day of expected landfall: The CNU community waits in their respective homes on Sept. 13, bracing for the storm, which moves slower than expected. Downgraded to a Category 1 from a then forecasted category four, Florence crawls toward the east coast, missing the forecasted landfall date.

Day of actual landfall: Moving much farther south than expected, landfall occurs on 7:15 a.m., Sept. 14 at Wrightsville Beach, N.C. The now demoted Category 1 hurricane hits the North and South Carolina coastlines, instead of Newport News as forecasted. 

Moving at the almost stationary pace of 6 mph, Florence drenches the Carolinas, resulting in a reported 15 to 30 inches of rainfall. The downpour pairs with sustained winds at a maximum of 90 mph according to an article from ABC News, causing road closures, structural damage, and at least 32 reported deaths, according to TIME magazine.

Receiving only bands of rain from the slow-moving storm, CNU has not reported any major damage to the university or the surrounding community.

Two days after landfall: Emergency personnel arrive back on campus at 11 a.m., with CNU students following behind at 12 p.m. on Sept. 16. Meetings of student organizations were canceled through the night as students readjusted to campus.

Three days after landfall: The university officially reopens and the schedules of students and faculty return to normal on Monday, Sept. 17., per an email from Kevin Hughes, the Vice President of Student Affairs.

University Response

Responding to an emergency situation like a hurricane means working quickly. With only days to respond to an incoming hurricane, the university must determine the cancelation of classes, evacuation of campus, and the return to campus following the storm.

The Captain’s Log got a chance to talk with Kevin Hughes and asked him to explain the protocol for evacuation.

“I will tell you our plan as a University is to never close… We don’t want to lose instructional time. That’s why people are here.” 

Although it may seem like every year there is a big storm that threatens to cancel classes for CNU, Hughes reminds us that this style of evacuation is not the norm. 

Last year, The Captain’s Log reported on Hurricane Jose and its threat to closing campus. Three years ago Hurricane Joaquin gave us similar threats. That said, no hurricane has ever been projected to come as close as Florence. 

“We look at all the spaghetti models,” Hughes said. Spaghetti models, which are used to visualize the course of the storm, are a useful tool in determining the potential impact of incoming storms. But is one spaghetti model all the University needs to come to a halt? The answer is a fair bit more complicated. 

The process for determining an evacuation begins with the Director of Emergency Services. They monitor the situation from the very beginning of the storm. If the storm begins to approach the coast, they call a meeting of the Emergency Policy Group. 

The Emergency Policy Group is a panel of senior administrators that work together to determine the University’s response to the storm. Made up of administrators from all aspects of campus life including the Office of the Provost, the Office of Student Affairs, the Office of Auxiliary Services, and more, the panel asks important questions regarding the impact of the storm.

“Are we in a situation where classes can continue? Are their increased risks we need to factor in?” Hughes provides us with example questions the group asks. “What are our options? Do we need to meet tomorrow to get additional updates?” 

These questions are answered through increased monitoring of the storm, comparisons to sister institutions, like other local colleges, knowledge of past storms, and guidance of the state. 

While guidance of the state is a rare occasion, it can be a helpful tool when determining possible evacuation as Hughes reminds us, “A big piece this time was the mandatory evacuation that was called for and the calling of the emergency shelter on campus, which has not happened in my eighteen years on campus…That really threw things into a new dynamic for us.”

That said, there is no one simple factor that will cause an evacuation as every storm behaves differently. One consideration that does hold special weight, beyond the guidance of the state, however, is power. 

“The biggest challenge for us [is] power..No power for four days is not really a liveable situation,” Hughes says. Not only is a lack of power not a liveable situation for the campus at large, there comes a special consideration regarding the hospital’s power. With many residence halls sharing a power grid and generators with Riverside, the considerations of loss of power gain an added weight.

That said, these considerations can be hard to come by three days before storms that behave as erratically as hurricanes. 

After the initial meeting and options are taken into consideration, there frequently is a second meeting held two days before the storm to ensure proper precautions are being taken. This was the case for Hurricane Florence. 

This second meeting either results in cancelation of classes, evacuation of campus, or no change at all to the campus schedule. This decision is shared with students via CNU Alert, and then forwarded through Residence Life to residents of campus.

But the role of the Emergency Policy Group does not end with evacuation. Following their considerations of the storm, they must also determine when classes can continue as normal, and where the missed time will be made up into the schedule.

The Emergency Policy Group works under pressurized conditions and monitors erratically moving storms three days in advance of landfall. This means that evacuations may be called in times when storms do not actually impact campus. That was the case for this particular hurricane. “We’ve had worse rain days in the middle of the semester than this particular hurricane, so we do not anticipate any major issues,” Hughes states. 

There were not any major issues reported following the storm.

Evacuation, but to where?

For many the cancellation of classes and evacuation of campus is welcome news. Being able to return back to family or just enjoying time off campus provides an escape. For many others, it can be as stressful as the incoming storm.

Given just over 24 hours to ensure a proper ride home and a place to go, international and out-of-state students have to start planning. This is the case for those students that may be returning to potentially impacted homes, as well.

“There’s a lot more coordination involved [when international students evacuate]. It’s a stressful experience. Personally, I had the added stress of finding a place for my sister who studies at William and Mary,” international student Kristen Ziccarelli explains.

Even though the university discusses the importance of having evacuation plans during Setting Sail and Welcome Week, and reaches out personally to students that may be in this boat, they also ensure that this possibility of evacuation is a rare one, leading many students to not take this planning into account.

“Every year at Setting Sail I talk with parents multiple times, and I know one of the Associate Deans talks to students during Welcome Week about plans when the university closes, but I will tell you our plan as a university is to never close,” Vice President of Student Affairs, Kevin Hughes says. 

While having plans for rides home over breaks is also a potential issue for these particular students, the planning for that may happen over a longer period of time. With hurricane season occurring at the beginning of the semester, many freshmen in this boat may not have made the personal connections that would facilitate a smooth relocation. 

That said, the university works informally to help smooth this relocation. From ride-sharing systems set up by Residence Life at the front desks of residence halls, to community Facebook posts in the CNU class Facebook pages, the University came together. There were also reports of professors offering their own homes to house international students in extreme cases.

Although there was no formal event hosted by the Center of Community Engagement (CCE), or the University as a whole, Brad Brewer the Director of the CCE, commented on the service he saw represented on campus. 

“I think in some ways you could say it was even more powerful, that students of their own choice have this spirit of service, and I would like to take some credit for that.” He goes on by saying “From the leadership of University, to our office, we’re a lot more poised and looking for opportunities to help each other, and to help others, so it was natural.”

A stressful experience for some, the service provided by members of the university ensured that people had proper housing and transportation, resulting in zero official reports of individuals unable to evacuate campus.


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