FIU’s hurricane readiness plan weathers Isaac with aplomb

The recent threat of a hurricane tested the university’s emergency preparedness. While Tropical Storm Isaac did not strengthen into a hurricane that affected South Florida, its potential to cause human injury and property damage put FIU and the entire region on high alert.

Before, during and after the storm, FIU had in place plans to protect the safety of students and ensure that their needs were met.

“The overall priority is the safety of our students, faculty and staff,” said Amy B. Aiken, director of FIU’s Department of Emergency Management. “All decisions, including closing down the university, will be made with an abundance of caution.”

Emergency Operations Center

University leaders and personnel from the Department of Emergency Management monitor conditions during the South Florida approach of Tropical Storm Isaac.

FIU maintains an emergency operations center that coordinates efforts in time of high alert and brings together all the decision makers, foremost among them the university president and other senior leadership. These individuals gather for the duration of the emergency to monitor conditions with the help of local and national authorities, as needed. And throughout the year, practice scenarios are run to prepare those who might be called up when challenges arise.

In the case of hurricanes, direct communication with the National Weather Service and the Miami-Dade County Office of Emergency Management, in addition to information from the National Hurricane Center, helps those in charge decide if and when to close down the university. In the case of Isaac, that decision was made early enough to allow students to safely leave campus and tend to any family or other obligations they might have.

FIU’s two main campuses, as well as its Engineering Campus and satellite campuses in Broward and Miami Beach and on Brickell Avenue in Miami, were closed during the storm. Shutters were put in place on those buildings that required them, and potential projectiles, such as outdoor art installations, either secured or removed. Students were informed of university-wide class cancellations via email, Facebook and Twitter, posts on the FIU homepage and local news stations, which carried continuing coverage of the storm.

Whenever the university officially closes, all non-residential students must leave.

“The less people on campus, the better,” Aiken said.  “Any student who cannot go home will have a safe place to ride out the storm, but being home with family or staying at a friend’s house is going to be a lot more comfortable.”

All residential students who have family in the local area and a place to stay are encouraged, although not required, to leave campus.

During Isaac, residence halls at the Modesto A. Madique Campus (MMC) and the Biscayne Bay Campus (BBC) remained open to residents. In more serious situations in which Miami-Dade County leaders call for an evacuation of coastal areas – over concerns of possible storm surge – students living at BBC would be shuttled to MMC to take shelter in the residence halls there. In such cases, students who live at MMC would have already been encouraged to stock up on supplies of additional water and food, and the university would also bring in such items for student use. Those with cars on campus would be allowed to move them into the safety of a parking garage.

In the case of Isaac, as conditions improved and all danger had passed, the decision was made to begin reopening buildings and restarting services that directly impact students’ ability to return to normal routine. The libraries, for example, welcomed back students on the afternoon prior to the start up of classes. The university food services also reopened at that time to serve students living on campus.

Before anyone can safely return to any building, however, inspections are conducted.

“There are no assumptions made until those buildings are checked, exterior and interior,” Aiken said.  “A building may look fine on the outside, but there could be interior damage that isn’t visible.”

Teams enter to inspect for structural damage and to check that technology services remain viable.  Local law enforcement can provide initial damage assessments for buildings at FIU’s  satellite campuses, but no one will be allowed to enter until final go ahead by FIU personnel, Aiken explained.

Throughout the year, the Department of Emergency Management works to ensure that their procedures and backup systems at FIU are working properly. Generators, for example, are regularly tested and refueled. Isaac, with its little affect upon South Florida, save for downed trees and limited power outages, proved a great chance to perfect processes.

“It was a really good dry run,” Aiken said. “We learned a lot of lessons. I couldn’t have written a better exercise.”