Teaming Up for Irma

Guest Correspondence

We always look forward to fall here on the Gulf Coast. It’s a time for a change in weather, a time for a shift in routine and a time for many of us to celebrate and follow our favorite football teams (although at Ringling College it’s a Quidditch team). This fall, however, brought a different and definitely unexpected shift in weather and routine, and an ultimate redefinition of how I think of the word “team.”

It’s been nearly one month to the day since we first heard her name: Irma. This storm, the most intense Atlantic hurricane to hit the United States since Katrina in 2005, slowly gained momentum and reputation—and put our area on full alert.

With catastrophic consequences for our island neighbors to the south and our own hometowns across the state and beyond, Hurricane Irma was a force to be reckoned with. However, no less impressive were (and are) the team efforts of our local, state and national emergency response teams as hundreds of thousands of people evacuated their homes in search of a safe place, while others hunkered down to ride out the storm.

As Irma grew to a Category 5, we watched teams at the national level set up for relief, with FEMA setting up a Mobile Disaster Recovery Center. At the state level, Governor Scott declared a state of emergency and called up thousands of Florida National Guard Troops to assist in preparing for Irma and its aftermath. Locally, the Sarasota County Emergency Management Chief called for voluntary evacuations and established dozens of emergency shelters with food, water and other provisions. At the same time, Ringling College’s own Emergency Response Team met, and we decided to evacuate all students from campus.

Personally, I have never been a proponent of closing school and evacuating all our students on account of weather. Too often, the storm misses us and it turns out to be a beautiful day. Making a decision to close and evacuate students is not an easy one. Of our 1,460 students, 1,050 or so live on campus. And most of them (70 percent) are not from Florida. And, to complicate matters further, 20 percent of our students are from foreign countries. So evacuating and helping our students leave the campus to find somewhere safe to go is a monumental task.

But this time my team was adamant that Irma was different. They persuasively argued that we needed to evacuate early so the students could have time to leave before she roared through Sarasota. And this time, I agreed with my team. It was not that difficult to sell me on this because something in my gut told me that they were right and this one was in fact different. And as it turned out, my team was right. There was no time to hem and haw. It was time for a unified approach, solidarity and teamwork across all the institutions, agencies and communities in the hurricane’s path. As our local emergency managers were quick to remind us, it takes the “whole community” to effectively prepare for, respond to and recover from a disaster. And rise to the call our community did.

I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude and admiration for all the groups and individuals who came together in the face of such a frightening and challenging time—especially to the members of the campus ERT team. Your collective efforts were vital to everyone’s safety and well-being, and thanks to you, we were able to reopen our gates last week and welcome our wonderful students back to campus. You would be surprised how thankful the students were to be back. Indeed, they did not complain when we extended the semester by one week to make up for the lost instruction time. But that’s our students—committed, eager to learn and driven to succeed.

What I’ve learned in Irma’s aftermath is that the shared experience of the storm has changed us all a little and ultimately brought us closer. Whether on the macro or micro level, each and every team, no matter how seasoned or prepared, made a plan and executed each and every move to the best of their ability—play by play, full of heart, together.

Dr. Larry Thompson is president of Ringling College of Art & Design.

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