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How a Florida School District Prepared for Multiple Hurricane Irma Scenarios

Michael Eugene spent the first part of his career in Cleveland advising superintendents when to close schools because of snowstorms. In Los Angeles, it was earthquakes.

In Florida, it's hurricanes. And in recent days, Eugene has been helping to prepare his district for what is forecast to be the most devastating hurricane to hit the state in a generation.

Eugene, the chief operations officer at the Orange County school district in central Florida, leads a group of chief officers—from facilities, instruction, and technology—who track hurricanes as they develop in the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico and make the recommendation to the superintendent on whether—and when—the district should close. The team also makes the recommendation for when superintendent should reopen schools.

Over the last several days, as Hurricane Irma gained speed and strength and barreled its way through the Caribbean, Eugene's team jumped into high gear, taking on full-time storm watch and preparation.

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They followed weather models four times a day, getting more "forensic" and technical models from the National Weather Service than the general public sees in the press, he said. They huddled at 4 p.m. each day to pore over hurricane maps to understand Irma's possible paths and impacts on the school district. They talked daily with the county's office of emergency management and joined conference calls with meteorologists who explained the details behind the various weather models.

Figuring out Irma's likely path and behavior has been very challenging. Early models showed the hurricane possibly hitting South Florida and veering west, while another showed Irma veering east.  

"With the size of a storm like this, inside of it is a hurricane, but just outside of it is tropical storm force winds—and those are two very different impacts for us," he said.

Making Sure There's Fuel in Tanks; Money Queued Up for Payroll

In addition to the "policy group," more than 20 departments, who are part of an incident management team that includes emergency management and transportation, are involved in planning for a storm like this. This group puts together the plan on how to prepare for and carry out the preparedness and recovery.

But the team doesn't just make recommendations about how and when to close: They make sure that teachers can get paid if there is prolonged closure.

So, before Florida Gov. Rick Scott decided late Thursday to shut down all K-12 schools, colleges, and universities in the state, Eugene and his team were juggling a range of preparations:

  • Lining up emergency contracting and spending authority from Superintendent Barbara Jenkins, so they can move quickly to spend large sums of money in the wake of the storm.
  • Creating a special emergency fund for disaster-related spending.
  • Ensuring all fuel tanks were at 100 percent, so if there's a gas shortage or other supply chain problem after the storm, the district can function and its buses can run.
  • Making sure staff will get paid if schools close for an extended period. 
  • Ensuring that food services, which supplies food to evacuees at shelters, has enough supplies for at least five days. Food services also set up a "nutrition access program" so that if schools are closed for an extended period, the district can set up food trucks at specific locations to give students access to meals.
  • Raising spending limits for some departments, such as maintenance staff, in case they need to go out and spend large sums of money.

"The preventative-based approach helps us prepare in advance so we are not making those decisions in the midst of a crisis," Eugene said in an interview Friday night. "That allows you to be more level-headed. It allows to you to be more strategic."

Each department has a specific readiness strategy on the steps it's taking to get ready and what it will need to do to get back up and running, he said.

"That kind of coordination improves our effectiveness. It improves our efficiency and our consistency," he said.  

When some school districts in south Florida made the decision as early as Tuesday to close Thursday and Friday, Orange County did not.

Eugene and his team were still following weather models that showed that the storm was not likely to impact Orange County until Monday with tropical storm force winds—meaning that they could complete the school week and close on Monday.

Some parents were anxious about that decision, Superintendent Jenkins said.

But she knew that her staff was using data, hard facts, and what the weather experts were saying to inform their recommendations to her.

Readying for What Comes After the Storm

Now that the district has shut down for Hurricane Irma, the team's work continues. They were back in the district Saturday, to go over the most recent projections about the fast-moving and rapidly-changing weather system, and think about the earliest day they will be able to reopen. (They decided to stay closed on Tuesday.)

One of the first things they must calculate: Are there enough teachers—including possible substitutes—available? Looking at how many teachers in the district submitted requests for leave next week will be one key factor. 

Other things the team will evaluate before deciding whether to recommend that Superintendent Jenkins reopen schools:

  • Are the buildings and buses in a good and safe condition?
  • Beyond having enough teachers, are there bus drivers available? Have cafeteria workers returned in order to run food services?
  • Are students able to come to school?

Eugene, who has been with Orange County since 2009, says all the departments have to work in tandem. If the internet goes down, the IT department may need facilities and finance to get up and running again.

"The way we think here in Orange County is that none of us is doing it on our own; we all do it as one family," he said.

Members of department readiness teams train during the year to test their preparedness, run through hypotheticals, and come up with tactical response plans, he said.

Eugene says he thinks all Florida districts that face the constant threats of hurricanes have some level of disaster preparedness and emergency response systems in place—the same way districts in the Midwest have structures to deal with snowstorms and California districts focus on earthquakes. The Miami-Dade school district runs disaster response scenarios with its staff.

Having dealt with all three, Eugene thinks hurricanes are more nerve-wracking.

"A hurricane places greater stress on staff because of the anticipation of its arrival and because one would think it's predictable—that you can see a hurricane coming three to five days away," he said.  

"The unanticipated part of a hurricane is whether it turns, and that's a very common conversation, and it's a very important [reason] for why we focus on those models," he continued. "It's the potential for that storm to turn and you're not affected at all. Whereas, an earthquake is an earthquake. When it hits, you are not told about it, and so there isn't the stress of the anticipation. But it definitely hits with a level of certainty."

Photo caption: Chief officers with the Orange County, Fla., school system meeting this week to discuss preparations for Hurricane Irma. Standing left to right: Jesus Jara, deputy superintendent, Michael Eugene, chief operations officer, and Scott Howat, chief communications officer. (Photo courtesy of the Orange County school district.) 

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