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CCU Atheneum: Bob Burns hauls sand bags in preparation for Hurricane Florence.
Bob Burns hauls sand bags in preparation for Hurricane Florence.

Rising above the Storm

by Doug Bell
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“The readiness is all,” said Hamlet. (Act. 5, Scene 2)

When it comes to emergency situations like the one presented by Hurricane Florence, Coastal Carolina University narrows in on one goal: preparedness.

Florence was a mammoth storm that brought unprecedented flooding to the Carolinas. Although downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it reached Horry County, Florence passed directly through CCU. Actual damage to the campus was fortunately minimal, but the storm and its aftermath forced the closing of the institution for an entire week and the suspension of classes for nearly three weeks.

Preparedness efforts began long before the track of the storm was certain. Florence gave CCU’s Office of Emergency Management the opportunity to implement an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) for the first time. Based on a federal plan that applies a whole-community approach to the management of all types of threats and hazards, the EOC brings key personnel together in one command center to direct operations for long-term emergency situations, under the supervision of an executive committee led by President DeCenzo.

Training for EOC personnel—approximately 25 CCU employees from departments that provide essential institutional functions—took place, fortuitously enough, over a four-week period in July, just in time for the real thing.

Out of Harm’s Way

The safety of the CCU family was the first consideration. The decision was made on Sept. 9, as Florence was increasing in size and strength (Category 4), to cancel classes and close the institution beginning Tuesday, Sept. 11. Students had been notified in the days prior to this decision to have their evacuation plans ready, and the exodus proceeded smoothly.

The HTC Center was the point of departure for evacuating students. Some were transported to the Myrtle Beach International Airport and some to the Amtrak depot in Florence, S.C. Fifty-three residence hall students were evacuated to Clemson University, accompanied by a number of University Housing and Public Safety personnel.

Two CCU volleyball players, freshmen Annett Nemeth of Budapest, Hungary, and Ann-Katrine Hakansson of Copenhagen, Denmark, were waiting that Tuesday morning to join their teammates for a flight to Pittsburgh.

“We don’t have hurricanes in Europe, so this is a first for us,” said Nemeth, who was disappointed that the storm had caused the cancellation of her first collegiate tournament, the Coastal Carolina Classic, scheduled for Sept. 13-15 at CCU. Although the team hoped to stay together to play matches in Pittsburgh, transportation issues intervened and the team’s international student-athletes wound up in either Atlanta or northern Virginia. Several CCU sports teams played away games while they were displaced by Florence.

It was also a first evacuation experience for freshmen Billy Ryder and Micaela Miers. They were waiting for a shuttle to the Hilton Gardens Hotel in Myrtle Beach, which was offering special overnight rates for students awaiting flights at the airport. Ryder, a marine science major, and Miers, an English major, were booked to fly the next day to Connecticut, where they live in the adjacent towns of Branford and Guilford on the Long Island Sound. Although they grew up within eight miles of each other and had mutual friends, the two didn’t meet until they were enrolled at CCU.

“They’ve done a good job getting all the students out and making sure we all had a plan,” said Ryder.

Hunkering Down

At the same moment the students were gathering at the HTC Center, CCU facilities staff members were making final preparations for Florence’s arrival. Behind the Burroughs & Chapin Center for Marine and Wetland Studies building on Allied Drive, Curtis Bryant, Glenn Pereire, Marvin Jones, Bob Burns and Rusty Bruton shouldered sandbags from the back of a truck and placed them in front of the doors of the building—an activity that was being replicated across campus. The men joked with each other as they worked, dubbing Pereire “the sandman,” but there was a sense of urgency in their voices. That morning on the Weather Channel, meteorologists were calling Florence “the storm of a lifetime.”

“It’s coming,” Bryant said as he lifted the last sandbag. “It’ll be here before we know it.”

Public Safety personnel were also hard at work that day facilitating the evacuation, directing traffic and completing work begun days before in preparation to close the campus.

The evacuation completed and the campus closed and battened down, the Emergency Management Team worked remotely throughout the event to track the storm and anticipate potential problems. University Communication staff posted advisories on a regular basis to inform students, parents and the campus community of the latest developments.

Most faculty and staff members in the official evacuation zones (A, B and C) followed orders and left the area, but some elected to stay. Marty Parker, director of content management services in University Communication, and his wife, Patti, rode it out in their house in The Market Common.

“I love storms,” said Parker. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be a weather chaser. I used to fly airplanes and I had to learn a lot about meteorology, so I know what to look for in the data. If Florence had remained at a Category 4, we would definitely have gone inland. But when I saw the strength dwindle, I felt comfortable. I had ridden out Hugo back when I worked with EMS in Pawleys Island. I was outside during part of that storm so I know the power that hurricanes have. We only lost power for 10 minutes during Florence. I didn’t even have time to start up the generator.”

Brent Reser, assistant director for digital media, reports that CCU’s social media “skyrocketed” during the storm. For the period from Sept. 11 to Sept. 17, total page views on Facebook increased 93 percent, and new followers to CCU’s Facebook page increased by 26 percent.

The most effective social media tool in reaching students with advisory updates, according to Reser, was Instagram’s Story feature. It enables users to link to pages by “swiping up,” and each of CCU’s advisory updates averaged 700 swipes, reaching more than 3,500 Instagram accounts.

CHANT411 has maintained its regular operating hours throughout the storm and its aftermath, according to director April Betsch. The staff answered 1,086 calls between Sept. 11 and Sept. 24, and approximately 700 of those calls were Florence-related. Out of 16 student CHANT411 staff members, 14 worked remotely from their homes in South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Moving forward

Facilities staff were on campus the day after the storm to assess the damage. Luckily, the campus itself suffered only minor damage from leaks and tree limbs, but the disastrous flooding in Conway and surrounding communities in the following days and weeks engulfed the roads CCU depends on for the delivery of food, fuel, and essential goods and services. The disruption of classes and the necessity to make up the lost time has presented unique challenges, which are being met in resourceful ways through technology and innovation.

Regretfully, the heaviest sorrow CCU has had to face has been the human consequences of loss and tragedy brought by the rising floodwaters—the highest in our history. A number of CCU faculty, staff, nonresident students and area alumni have been displaced by the flood and are now in the process of rebuilding their homes and lives.

“The Coastal Carolina family has pulled together magnificently throughout this ordeal,” said CCU President David A. DeCenzo. “From the expert guidance provided by our Emergency Management Team to the creative academic solutions offered by our faculty and staff, to the countless acts of support and compassion to those in need, CCU’s response has been nothing short of heroic, and I’ve never been prouder to be a Chanticleer.”

During the period that classes were canceled, the Office of the Provost communicated with faculty and students regarding alternative methods of instruction that can be delivered remotely to students.

CCU offers an Employee Assistance Program for those dealing with emotional stress due to recent events, which is also available to dependents and other members of an employee’s household. Call 1-800-822-4847 or go online to lifeserviceseap.com (username: ccu/password: employee).

Anyone who would like to help CCU employees in need may give to the CCU Faculty and Staff Benevolence Fund, which provides limited financial assistance to eligible employees who experience extreme economic hardship to due emergency situations. Visit https://www.coastal.edu/givenow/ and select “CCU Employee Benevolence Fund” in the gift designation section of the form.

For more information on ways to give, contact Brian Rothenberger in CCU’s Office for Philanthropy at 843-349-2012. To apply for assistance from the Faculty and Staff Benevolence Fund, the link is www.coastal.edu/hreo/benefits/additional//#BF.

 

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