USF announced Thursday that, with Hurricane Frances closing in on Florida, all four USF campuses – Tampa, St. Petersburg, Lakelan and Sarasota/Manatee – would close at 8 a.m. Friday.
Originally, the university was planning to keep the Tampa and St. Petersburg campuses open Friday. USF spokeswoman Michelle Carlyon could not be reached Thursday afternoon to comment on the change of plans.
Wednesday, Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency for all of Florida. State officials say 2.5 million residents are under evacuation, the largest evacuation request in state history. Gov. Bush also asked his brother, President George W. Bush, to declare Florida a federal disaster area because of Frances.
Frances is just as strong as Hurricane Charley, which devastated Florida’s southwest coast Aug. 13, but is twice the size, said Stephen Baig, a forecaster at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Frances was also about twice the size of 1992’s more powerful Hurricane Andrew, which destroyed much of southern Miami-Dade County.
That means that Frances’ hurricane-force winds, which extend up to 80 miles from its center, can cause just as much damage over a larger area, Baig said Thursday.
While the Tampa campus will remain open, the university is urging students to vacate the campus for the weekend if possible.
“We are encouraging students, as we always do in a hurricane, to go home and be with their families if they can,” said Tom Kane, director of Residence Services. “Knowing that people are from Melbourne and other places that will be under a Category 4 storm, obviously not everyone can go home. We’ve even heard that some people are having family or friends come over here and stay with them in their rooms.”
Kane said it will be more difficult to get students to leave campus for Frances than it was to do so for Hurricane Charley last month. Charley, which was projected to hit Tampa before turning and hitting land in Punta Gorda, hit late in the summer term. But because it was the summer, Kane said, there were only a few hundred students living on campus and it was easier to coordinate.
Now, Kane said, with more students, it may be more difficult to convince all of them of the danger Frances could present.
“My biggest fear about this storm isn’t the storm itself. My biggest concern is that students will stay here and have hurricane parties,” he said. “People get intoxicated and do dumb things. We have flooding and other damage that could happen, so people need to be aware and very careful; people need to have their wits about them.
“During the storm, should it hit, we may not have time to confront people right then and there. But we still have 13 weeks to go in the semester. Incident reports will be filed. … We just want to make sure everyone is as safe as possible here.”
Another difference between Charley and Frances, according to Kane, is that Charley approached from the Gulf of Mexico, approaching the state’s west coast with no land to weaken it. Now, Kane said, students may not be as worried because Frances will have to cross the state before hitting the area.
Kane also said that, if Frances approaches Tampa, students may be asked to move out of some buildings, including the Holly Apartments, and into safer buildings where debris being blown around the storm would not be a hazard.
There are two approved shelters on the USF campus. One is Pizzo Elementary School. The other is the Sun Dome, which, according to Clark Brooks, marketing and ticketing manager for the facility, is one of only three special need shelters in the Tampa Bay area.
Brooks said the Sun Dome is prepared to take up to 1,000 evacuees. He said about 300 people came to the facility in August when Charley struck Central Florida.
Clark said the Sun Dome would be opened if the Hillsborough County Emergency Operations Center decides it is necessary. If it is opened, he said, those inside would have access to meals, restrooms and an area to watch television.
Residents needing more information or looking for the shelter in their area should contact the Hillsborough County EOC at (813) 272-6900 or (813) 276-2385.