Emergency operations team safeguards university community against Hurricane Irma

As Hurricane Irma crawled west through the Caribbean, South Floridians scrambled to shutter their homes, braved hours-long waits for a share of the dwindling gasoline supply and raced to snatch up cases of water and generators flying off store shelves.

Meanwhile, a team trained in disaster response assembled in FIU’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC), a 1,630-square-foot reinforced facility in Parking Garage 5 at the Modesto A. Maidique Campus that would become the hub of decision making at the university during the hurricane.

“Now’s the time to step up to the plate,” Assistant Vice President for Disaster Management and Emergency Operations Ruben Almaguer tells the group of administrators who represent operations, facilities, student housing, law enforcement and other key areas.

They’re gathered around tables, some with notes in hand detailing immediate concerns. The day’s action plan is outlined on white boards, televisions are tuned to local and national news, and landline phones are connected to ensure direct calling as needed to the National Hurricane Center and county and state emergency operations centers.

The mission: Safeguard a university with 56,000 students, 10,000 employees and a $9 billion economic impact against a storm with the potential to level South Florida, and provide support to the broader community.

“We have to plan like a Category 5 will hit Miami-Dade County. We prepare for the absolute worst, but continue to hope for the best,” Almaguer explains.

Led by Almaguer and Emergency Management Director Amy Aiken—who together have 50+ years of experience in the eld at the city, county and state levels—the EOC team is charged with mitigating potential damage that could endanger FIU’s ability to get back to the business of education once the threat passes. They coordinate the logistics of battening down buildings; sheltering campus residents and Monroe County evacuees; communicating important updates on the storm as well as university closures; and cleaning up post-hurricane.

The 40 EOC members meet every semester to participate in a daylong simulation that challenges them to implement emergency protocols in various scenarios. They are guided by the university’s Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan, which covers all potential emergencies including cyberattacks, active shooters, civil disturbances, pandemics and more. Response-and-recovery strategies are updated based on lessons learned from exercises and actual activation. (The 7-year-old center has been activated only twice before, both times for less-menacing hurricanes.)

Jonathan Lord, deputy director of the Florida Department of Emergency Management, said using the Incident Command System—a standardized structure for coordinating emergency personnel and resources that is considered best practice by military and government agencies—is key to FIU’s ability to seamlessly manage, coordinate and communicate its emergency and disaster services and information, both within the FIU community and with external local and state partners.

“FIU provided unprecedented support to Florida residents and students in response to Hurricane Irma,” Lord said, acknowledging public universities and colleges statewide for their exceptional response- and-recovery efforts.

Communication is key during crisis. Led by Assistant Vice President Maydel Santana, the team sent daily updates on behalf of the president to inform students, employees and the community about the university’s status, encourage hurricane preparation and safety, and address questions of greatest general concern as monitored by the FIU call center.

“Seeing our EOC in action is truly impressive,” Santana said. “There’s a lot of heart in this team that came together to coordinate important work for the benefit of our students and the broader community.”