Tallahassee has not been directly hit by a hurricane since Hurricane Kate in 1985. The city was devastated by 3 inches of rain, and wind gusts of 30 mph, which uprooted thousands of large trees.
The city has yet to see another named stormed that posed a serious threat to its residents and infrastructure. But the infrequency of hurricanes in the Big Bend has not stopped Florida A&M administrators from preparing for a major storm.
The FAMU Department of Public Safety has two trained weather spotters who work in conjunction with county, state and federal emergency services. The university also implements its Emergency Operations Center, which handles all logistics when dealing with all disasters, natural or man-made. FAMU’s EOC is just a smaller entity of an all-encompassing state emergency operations center.
“FAMU is the only university that actually has a seat on the state emergency operation center, which works with all universities in the event of a natural disaster,” said Sgt. Sherri Luke, a service emergency manager with the FAMU Police Department.
“The FAMU Emergency Operations Center mirrors those found at the federal, state, and county and does the exact same thing at the campus level.”
“When we open the Emergency Operations Center it enacts emergency university leadership team,” added Luke.
The team consists of representatives from university facilities, dining, law enforcement, administration, housing, information technology, and other high-level administrators who make decisions on how the university will operate in the event of a disaster.
“Everyone has a place on that team. I feel very confident in FAMU’s ability to handle a hurricane,” Luke said.When a tropical storm develops, the emergency operations team has meetings to determine the best course of action for FAMU in the event Tallahassee is hit by a hurricane. “It’s a coordinated effort within th state,” said Luke.
According to Melanie Motiska a public information officer with the Florida Division of Emergency Management, state law mandates a “Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan” that serves as the master document guiding the states handling of emergencies and disasters. Outlined in that document are the roles that government, volunteer, private and non-governmental agencies play in the State Emergency Response Team, (SERT). Aside from the state’s efforts to protect its residents from the damage from a hurricance, Mostika said that hurricane preparedness is more of an individual effort.
“Hurricane preparedness in Florida starts with the individual…by taking time to make a disaster plan and a disaster supply kit. A disaster plan will include plans for evacuation and for shelter. According to Motiska a basic hurricane survival kit for evacuation or staying put, contains a two weeks’ supply of non-perishable food and water, a one month supply of prescription medication, a full tank of gas, cash, important documents, sanitary supplies,a flashlight and battery powered weather radio or TV with extra batteries.
The Division of Emergency Management does not recommend keep candles in the disaster kit.
“Depending on the severity of the disaster, there may be gas lines that have been impacted and possibly leaking gas. Based on that, and the simple potential danger of burning candles in the home, it could be a real fire hazard,” said Mostika.
For those who choose to stay put and ride out a storm, officials say it is crucial to designate a safe room with no exterior windows or doors for shelter. They also recommend boarding up exterior doors and windows with storm-proof shutters or plywood and to remove loose yard items such as patio furniture to minimize wind damage from flying debris.
Students at FAMU who live on and off campus have mixed views about their safety if Tallahassee was hit by a hurricane. Breante Brown, a first-year nursing student from Gainesville said although she went through Hurricane Andrew in 1992 she is worried about her safety in her dorm room.
“It’s an old building…you never really know how secure it is. There are leaks in the basement. I mean it could flood,” said Brown,
Brown would also like to see FAMU get more involved with the student body in providing information about what supplies to have and what to do in the event there is a major storm.
Darryl Johnson, a third-year architecture student from Miami has seen his share of hurricanes, most notably in 2004 when South Florida was repeatedly hit by an onslaught of major hurricanes. He remains prepared.
“When a hurricane hit [in Miami], everybody came to one household. Here, I have two cousins here, one goes to FAMU and one goes to Tallahassee Community College,” said Johnson.
“What we’ll do is all meet up at one of our houses and put money in together to collect things we need because we have experience with our lights being out for weeks. We’re familiar with what to do and what not to do,” said Johnson.
Not every student is from Florida and has experience in dealing with hurricanes. Salem Montgomery, a first-year biology student from Detroit has never been through a hurricane but does not fear her safety is at risk.
“It’s a little scary because we get blizzards [in Detroit],” said Montgomery. “I don’t really know what to expect. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything from FAMU about the hurricane season. I’m just a little apprehensive.”
Montgomery suggested that like, Fire Safety Week, FAMU hold a Hurricane Awareness Week to promote the hurrincane preparedness and to get the student body involved.
“Being far away from home, I do need to take more precautions for my safety,” said Montgomery.
Motiska gave similar advice. “Residents who educate themselves on the basics of hurricane preparedness, the differences between watches and warnings and how to get reliable information during a storm stand to be real survivors.”
FAMU students are encouraged to sign up for E-campus Alerts through the university’s website, which allows administrators to send alerts to students instantly via mobile phone, email, web and pager in the event of an emergency or disaster.
Hurricane season lasts in the northern hemisphere from May through November, but statistically September is the most active month for the storms and Florida is the most affected state.
A study done by the National Hurricane Center analyzing 92 major storms by month from 1851-2004 found that there have been 43 hurricanes in September.
A separate study by the NHC, covering the same years found Florida has been hit a total of 110 times out of 273 landfalls, with 35 of those being major hurricanes, (category 3-5).
Up-to-date information on storms, evacuation orders, and current shelter locations, which are not released until just prior to the storm depending on the path, can be found at www.floridadisaster.org, www.leoncountyfl.gov/eip, or any of Tallahassee’s local television station websites or on weather radio frequency 162.4 VHF.