Helping One Another: USF Comes Together for Hurricane Irma

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Before, during and after the storm, many offered helping hands and shelter

As Hurricane Irma churned toward Florida’s west coast area last week, USF Bulls did not just hunker down or evacuate in preparation for the monster storm.

They rallied big time.


USF volunteers helped the community fill in the gaps for a wide variety of emergency response needs, including staffing EOC call centers.

USF employees spent countless hours planning for and responding to the storm during the week, some returning home only to shower and others working remotely. Just one example of the logistics required: USF kept more than 2,000 Tampa students who stayed in their campus residence halls during the storm safe, secure and well-nourished, and also housed some students from USF St. Petersburg, USF Sarasota-Manatee, off-campus Tampa students, faculty, staff and families from all three campuses, as well as Hillsborough County Sheriff and University Police officers.

The USF community also reached out to the wider Tampa Bay community — caring for evacuees at area hurricane shelters, including the USF Sun Dome, the county’s largest shelter for people with special health care needs; fielding phone calls at emergency operations centers; and volunteering around the clock in partnership with local agencies to respond to a myriad disaster needs.

Here are just some of the stories about ways the USF family helped each other and the members of the public before, during and after Hurricane Irma:


Public health coordinates community disaster response

USF College of Public Health’s Elizabeth Dunn began working with emergency management undergraduate students to start disaster relief efforts last Wednesday when Tampa expected to be hit by a category 4 or 5 hurricane. County and city officials realized then they would need to rely on USF to help fill in the gaps in areas of need.

So, Dunn, director of the USF Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), collaborated with her CERT leaders, reaching out to organizations and colleges across USF to mobilize and, if needed, to train volunteers.

“With such a large storm coming and because of what was happening in Texas during Harvey, many resources were spread thin,” she said, “so we were trying to make sure there was nothing missed within our community.”

The response to CERT’s call to action was gratifying.

“Our USF family definitely came forward when there was a need,” said Dunn, instructor and assistant to the director of the Global Disaster Management, Humanitarian Relief, and Homeland Security program at COPH. “It was our chance to be part of something bigger than us.”

Some 200 USF students, faculty staff and alumni volunteered to support more than 25 agencies and organizations — including the emergency management, health, public works and code enforcement departments in Hillsborough County, City of Tampa Emergency Management, American Red Cross, EMS Transport, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, Sunshine Line, Aging Services, and Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center, to name a few.


Zachary Pruitt (right), PhD, MHA, visiting assistant professor in the Dept. of Health Policy and Management, is a Hillsborough County Medical Reserve Corp volunteer. During Hurricane Irma he worked as the night shift’s logistics manager at the Strawberry Crest High School special needs shelter. The site housed 260 medically needy clients and their families. In the recovery phase on Monday, he helped the day shift organize transportation home (if safe) or to the Sun Dome. Pruitt is pictured with Hillsborough County Department of Health employees, including his student from USF’s MBA program Kris Napier (left).

They served in many ways, including: managed and staffed 18 shelters, fielded calls at emergency operation centers and local TV stations to answer residents’ questions about safety, helped arrange transportation for those who needed to get to special needs shelters or the hospital, delivered food, water and supplies to communities in need, and helped county code enforcement assess wind and flood damage after the storm.


USF volunteers (including a couple of children of USF Bulls) delivered food and water to hurricane survivors at a distribution point in Dover on the weekend after Hurricane Irma. The USF Community Emergency Response Team worked with Hillsborough County Aging Services and other local CERTs to help manage the event.

Just a few examples:  Jesse Casanova, who manages all international programs in the College of Public Health worked 13-hour shifts over five days at the emergency operations call center and was quickly made a supervisor.  In addition to taking many calls from Spanish speakers, he provided triage between the shelters, the fire department and the police department, making sure people got where they needed to go without strife.  COPH Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Kay Perrin, PhD, who is also a nurse, took hundreds of calls herself and was a resource for other volunteers who received health-related questions.  Ellen Daley, PhD, associate dean for research and practice, and her family, opened and helped staff a shelter at Greco Middle School, while Joe Bohn, PhD, director of community engagement for COPH, provided a range of support and troubleshooting at two shelters, Middleton High School and Carrollwood Elementary School.

In Hurricane Irma’s aftermath, CERT helped mobilize and train public health students for Disaster Survivor Assistance Teams to identify those seeking resources for recovery, Dunn said.


Following the storm, USF public health students volunteering on a Disaster Survivor Assistance Team worked with code enforcement officers to assess flood and wind damage across Hillsborough County, including along the Alafia River.


USF provides care, comfort at Sun Dome special needs shelter

Approximately 30 USF undergraduate students and some faculty from the Colleges of Nursing, Public Health and Pharmacy also contributed to the care of evacuees with special needs, said Douglas Holt, MD, director of the Hillsborough County Health Department. Holt arrived Friday morning to inspect and activate the USF Sun Dome—one of the county’s three special needs hurricane shelters he would open over the weekend.

“USF played a comprehensive, prominent and holistic role at the Sun Dome shelter,” said Dr. Holt, who also directs the USF Department of Internal Medicine’s Division of Infectious Diseases and International Medicine. “The human connection and emotional comfort provided by these volunteers to special needs patients in a time of distress was as important as the medical aspect of care.”


COPH student volunteers set up cots before evacuees arrive at the Sun Dome.

On Friday evening there were about 250 evacuees. That number shot up to more than 800 evacuees by the height of the storm with cots and wheelchairs covering the main floor and overflowing into the halls.

As the hurricane raged outside the Sun Dome Sunday night, shelter volunteer Brad Perich, a USF epidemiology graduate student, filled in for a chaplain playing music to help ease frayed nerves. On an electronic keyboard, Perich performed the theme music from the TV series Game of Thrones, and for his finale he sang a rousing rendition of the song New York, New York.


Brad Perich, MSPH candidate in epidemiology at the College of Public Health, played music for evacuees and volunteers inside the Sun Dome at the height of Hurricane Irma.

In addition to Dr. Holt, MCOM faculty from the Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease and International Medicine volunteering at the Sun Dome included: Lyn Menezes, PhD; Marian Menezes, MD; Zack Gales, MD; Eric Zhao, MD; as well as international physician trainees (and one nurse trainee) from China: Shaopeng Yang, MD; Haibin Zhong, MD; and Shuming Xu, MD; and Xiao Tong Zheng, RN.


Marian Menenzes, MD, (left) a USF clinical affiliate faculty member in pulmonary and critical care, with Joette Giovinco, MPD, MPH, (right) “Dr. Jo,” the medical reporter for Fox 13 News, a physician and alum of USF’s occupational health residency program.

Related media:
President Genshaft Hurricane Irma Update [VIDEO]

Excerpts reposted with permission. For the full story on USF’s response, visit USF News.