USF communications during Irma cause mixed reactions

As Hurricane Irma threatened the state of Florida, there was a feeling of unease for some USF students and Tampa residents.

Tampa homeowners and businesses boarded up their windows and stood by while the storm made landfall in the Keys as a Category 4.

In the days before landfall, students on the USF class Facebook pages expressed concern and speculated about classes being canceled. USF Dean of Students Danielle McDonald first communicated to students the possible effects of the hurricane on Sept. 5, writing that decisions about campus closures would not be made until later in the week.

The following day, McDonald told students campus would be closed for the rest of the week and through the weekend. As days passed and Irma’s path shifted, more communications were provided. Florida Gov. Rick Scott mandated that state offices and schools close Sept. 8-11. USF canceled classes Sept. 7-13.

Dean of Students Danielle McDonald sent out a series of emails as Hurricane Irma approached to inform students of safety procedures and campus closures. Photo courtesy of the Office of the Dean of Students

Throughout this time, USF Tampa decided not to evacuate students living on campus.

“We are not in a flood zone and are further away from the coastal areas,” McDonald said in an email to students. ” … I hope to reassure you that the campus and our surrounding neighborhoods, where most of you live, is considered safer than other areas.”

In the time leading up to the storm, USF communicated with students to educate them on precautions to take and ways to prepare. McDonald included tips for hurricane preparation in an email to students. USF also has a page dedicated to emergency preparation.

Infographic by Kylie Buklad

However, as Irma approached, some students living on campus became nervous for their safety despite reassurance from the university.

Taira Zavala, a senior at USF, chose to go with her family to Texas to wait out the storm.

This is Zavala’s first year living in off-campus housing. She waited until Saturday night to finally evacuate. The days leading up to the storm took quite a toll on her, she said.

“I was incredibly stressed the week before the hurricane,” Zavala said. “I could not help but think that I should evacuate … My anxiety was just so terrible and I knew if I stayed it would only get worse. The storm was not as bad as I anticipated, but for my mental state it was the right move.”

Zavala questioned the timeline of campus communications and cancellations at USF.

“I definitely feel that they could have made the decisions in a timelier manner,” Zavala said. “I know many students that evacuated so I think it would have been the right move to close down the school for the remainder of that week.”

Zavala was not the only student to leave USF ahead of Hurricane Irma. Dillon Sunderland, a junior at USF, decided to evacuate the Wednesday before the hurricane hit Florida.

“This was the first time I have experienced a major threat on campus,” Sunderland said. “I felt unsafe in my [off campus] apartment because of the lack of storm windows, and the fact that I’m on the first floor, so flooding was a concern.”

Sunderland has been living in campus housing for over a year. He may have felt unsafe in his USF affiliated apartment, but Sunderland said he thinks that USF handled the emergency well.

“They closed school early enough to allow people to evacuate,” Sunderland said.

USF System President Judy Genshaft released a video about the impact of Irma on USF. She spoke of the efforts of USF faculty housing and feeding students that stayed on campus for the storm. She said almost 800 people were housed in the Sun Dome, which is a special needs shelter for Hillsborough County, during Irma. Genshaft said she was proud that USF could keep so many people housed and fed during the storm.