The Logistics of Emergency Management

EOC, HRL, BA leaders

(left to right) Peter Groenendyk, director of Housing and Residence Life; Eric Griffin, emergency management
coordinator; Deb Tew, interim EH&S director; (seated) Mark Morgan, AVC for business affairs in charge of facilities

Just 12 class days into the fall 2018 semester, the back-to-school momentum came to an abrupt halt. Over the course of just a few days in early September, what started as a tropical storm grew into monstrous Hurricane Florence, its trajectory sobering – straight toward Wrightsville Beach, just a few miles from the UNCW campus. A voluntary student evacuation was issued on Sept. 10, and classes were cancelled. The next day brought a mandatory student evacuation order and Chancellor Sartarelli declared a state of emergency for the university. The storm would make landfall in the early morning hours on Sept. 14.
As students, faculty and staff made their own personal preparations and grappled with whether to leave town or stay and ride out the storm, many UNCW staff members were intently focused on making sure the campus was prepared.
UNCW’s Emergency Operations Center in Hoggard Hall officially opened Sept. 11, although planning began days earlier. It would remain open until Oct. 3.
Hurricane Florence was projected to strike as a Category 4 storm capable of catastrophic damage. With that in mind, UNCW’s Crisis Decision Team concluded that only a small core of employees – from the Department of Environmental Health and Safety, the physical plant and the university police department – should ride out the storm on campus.
Among them was Emergency Management Coordinator Eric Griffin, who monitored the forecast and communicated with the other employees on campus as the storm progressed.
“This was the most intense storm the university has ever faced,” Griffin said. “I was extremely relieved after communicating with the National Weather Service that the strength had diminished. I felt more confident in our abilities to provide at least an initial level of damage assessment and to stabilize the situation on campus. That’s what we focused on initially – stabilization, trying to keep the damage from getting worse.”
Once the hurricane passed, access to the campus and to individual buildings was precarious, and many employees had evacuated and couldn’t get back, or were unable to get out of their neighborhoods.
“People had evacuated because they were concerned about the damage potential for this storm, so the available pool of staff was drastically reduced – and even many of those who remained here were cut off by localized flooding,” said Deb Tew, interim EH&S director.
Despite the challenges, employees worked quickly to clear campus roads, sidewalks and building entrances of downed trees and other hazards to allow damage assessment and remediation to begin. Job descriptions didn’t matter at that point. Everyone pitched in to do what was necessary.
“There was a need to move research material out of Dobo,” Tew said. “With standing water in the building, we had to turn off the generator because of the electricity, and so we had to get the freezers out. Landis Bullock, our fire safety technician, was loading freezers in the back of trucks, and researchers were pushing freezers down the road to Friday Hall and Oriole Burevitch Laboratory. It was a multidivisional effort to get that done. People just jumped in where they needed to.”
Help also came from the University of North Carolina System and partners on other UNC campuses. In October 2017, UNCW led a statewide drill known as “Hurricane Zephyr,” which tested the response plan for a Category 5 hurricane. Part of the emergency plan called for UNCW to evacuate students to another UNC campus and to enlist support from other campuses to staff the EOC, assist in damage assessment and help with academic and student support.
“One of the more valuable takeaways from Zephyr was the recognition that we could rely on our partners from other campuses,” Tew said. “And we could call on their expertise to assist in the recovery and to bring a perspective that often isn’t available when you are immersed in a situation like this. Even though travel to Wilmington was nearly impossible, employees from four different campuses hopped on a UNC-Chapel Hill plane to join us in the early days of recovery.”

While UNCW’s commitment to reviewing, revising and rehearsing emergency procedures paid off, it took many people working together to get the campus ready to reopen, Griffin said.

“Hundreds of people were involved in this effort to help UNCW reopen and save the semester,” he said.

“Our EH&S team did a terrific job responding to a situation that was both unprecedented and constantly evolving," said Chancellor Sartarelli. "They — along with their peers in University Police, ITS and Auxiliary Services — were the difference between failure and success for us during and after the storm.”

 -- Tricia Vance, with additional reporting by Andrea Monroe Weaver