Eye on the storm

USF put down sandbags to prevent water from entering buildings after the rainstorms caused by Tropical Storm Colin. The university canceled classes on Monday afternoon due to the storm. ORACLE PHOTO/JACKIE BENITEZ

Tropical Storm Colin left its mark on the Bay area and the state well before it hit, causing bus services in Pasco County to be suspended, two Hillsborough County high school graduations to be rescheduled, and flood warnings as far north as the panhandle.

On USF’s campus, the storm resulted in the cancellation of classes and temporary closure on Monday. The decision came from the office of USF System President Judy Genshaft after USF Emergency Management provided the information about the oncoming storm.

Colin did not meet the qualifications of a hurricane but remains the third named storm this year — the first of the season, which began on June 1 and will last until Nov. 30. 

In the middle of May, USF Emergency Management began to monitor any systems that might form into potential threatening storms.

When a storm looks like it may affect Florida, USF issues a weather report containing information about the impending storm. The university also looks at information from other weather outlets, such as the National Hurricane Center (NHC), especially when USF lies in the NHC’s “cone of uncertainty,” the projected five-day path of the hurricane’s center.

Decisions to cancel classes, close campus or evacuate campus are ultimately made by Genshaft, and are influenced by weather reports from USF, the NHC and the National Weather Service, as well as decisions made by local and state government. 

Pizzo Elementary, located on USF’s campus, has received designation by Hillsborough County as a hurricane shelter. It is run by the Red Cross. 

The Sun Dome is also a shelter, run by the Hillsborough County Health Department. 

In the event of an evacuation, USF will provide transportation to those on campus who need to use the shelter, although USF Emergency Manager Jennifer Fleischman recommends shelters only “be used as kind of a backup plan if you don’t have anywhere else to go.”

The dangers of hurricanes include tornadoes, flooding, and hazardous materials and debris before, during and after the storm passes, according to USF’s 2016 Hurricane Guide. 

University Police     Chief Chris Daniel feels that students on campus may have an advantage in terms of problems like flooding due to the slightly higher elevation of USF compared with other parts of the city.

Daniel strongly cautioned students to remain indoors, avoid floodwaters and not go out in hurricane conditions if they feel uncomfortable navigating through them. Students commuting to campus should not drive if conditions are unsafe.

Daniel strongly recommends paying attention to media sources to gain updates on the advancing storm and any news about transportation and evacuation. Commuter students may need to plan in advance for roads closed due to flooding or other hazards.

“I definitely say tune into the local media and chart my course based on those recommendations and if at all you feel uncomfortable, go home, turn around, or go someplace else where you feel safe until the conditions change,” Daniel said.

He and Fleischman both recommend students start planning in advance for the storm, getting evacuation residences situated and obtaining necessary supplies.

General advice includes getting flood insurance for apartments or dorms, filling up the gas tank on vehicles before the storm hits to avoid any shortages that may happen during evacuation and getting pets to a safe location.

Fleischman stressed the importance of a disaster kit, which is recommended to include water, non-perishable food, a can opener, a battery operated or hand crank radio, a flashlight, extra batteries, and a first aid kit. 

A full list of items can be found in the guide, which is available on the USF Emergency Management website.

“The disaster kit … could really be applicable regardless of what type of event you’re experiencing,” she said. “… You want to have enough supplies to be self-sufficient for 72 hours. It’s kind of the golden rule with that.”

It is extremely important for students to educate themselves about the storms and how to prepare for them, according to Fleischman and Daniel, in order to prepare and reduce anxiety. Resources such as storm progress reports will allow students, faculty and staff to make informed decisions.

“I just think information is the best way to get through one of these circumstances — and the better informed a person is, the better decisions they can make on their own behalf,” Daniel said.

USF will communicate with students, faculty and staff through email and the MoBull Messenger system in the event of a storm. Information will also be available on USF websites and the USF Emergency Information Line. 

In the event that the university closes, essential personnel will remain on campus. These include emergency responders, UP officers, physical plant employees, information technology (IT) employees and some members of the president’s office.

When the university closes, the president determines which entities close on campus depending on conditions. Some entities on campus have their own emergency plans, such as dining services.

During a storm, UP will be there to respond to both natural disaster-related emergencies and criminal events.

“Particularly in a storm, we take on the role of more eyes and ears because we do have personnel out on the street moving about campus,” Daniel said. “We identify hazards and address those with the appropriate entities on campus … If we do find someone who’s in distress, we’re able to render them assistance and bring other emergency response personnel if their skills are needed.”

UP will also serve as a line of communication as the storm passes, using PA systems on cars to relay messages and communicating with other entities in the county.

Each storm is different, making its effects hard to predict. Whether or not campus will be safe to return to after a storm passes is also unpredictable, which means that USF has to adapt its handling of emergencies and the timeline for resuming normal function.

It has been more than 90 years since the last major hurricane passed over Tampa, which puts the city high on the list of those long overdue for a huge story. However, Daniel assures students that USF has their safety in mind.

“I can tell you that every experience that I’ve had, this university takes the safety of its constituents into heart,” he said.