‘An element of the unknown’: Hurricane season at the U

UM Director of Emergency Management Matthew Shpiner meets with President Julio Frenk before Hurricane Dorian in 2019.
UM Director of Emergency Management Matthew Shpiner meets with President Julio Frenk before Hurricane Dorian in 2019. Photo credit: UM Communications

On autumn weekends in Reading, Pa., a young Brian McNoldy spent his mornings glued to the living room TV scanning VCR recordings of The Weather Channel in the hopes of catching his favorite show. The hourly tropical update rarely carried forecasts for McNoldy’s hometown, but in 1985, the 9-year-old’s fascination with hurricanes kept him eagerly waiting for the next big storm.

“There’s always an element of the unknown when dealing with predicting nature, and hurricanes are no exception,” said McNoldy, now a senior research associate at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. “For any researcher or person interested in hurricanes, I guess the question is what makes them tick?”

For emergency personnel at the University of Miami, however, the June 1 start of Miami’s yearly hurricane season signals something very different from the return of a beloved show, as they continue work that never stops to prepare campus for a storm that may never come.

“If you think about it similar to looking at insurance policies, well, you don’t have insurance policies and then end up disappointed that you weren’t involved in a car accident and didn’t have to use that policy,” said UM’s Director of Emergency Management Matthew Shpiner, who leads an expansive team of emergency professionals tasked with preparing the university for disasters like hurricanes or active-shooter situations.

The Office of Emergency Management was created in October 2010, partially as a result of the growing fear from universities across the country after a series of on-campus shootings at U.S. universities like Virginia Tech, said Senior Vice President of Student Affairs Patricia Whitely.

Since then, however, the department has dedicated much of its time and resources to planning and preparing for the impact of a warm core, low pressure system, or hurricane, like 1926’s “Great Miami Hurricane,” which maintained winds of over 145 mph and flooded areas of the city with a storm surge of over eight feet, virtually destroying the inchoate university later rebranded to commemorate the storm’s magnitude.

Shpiner and his team communicate daily with hurricane experts like McNoldy, who works out of the RSMAS Key Biscayne campus, and organizations like the National Hurricane Center to monitor the activity of tropical storms and hurricanes in order to determine the risk to the UM community and weigh possible courses of action ranging from observation to evacuation. The decision making process in advance of potential threats is a delicate balancing act, Shpiner says, which requires careful attention, swift action and most often, restraint.

“Emergency management is just as much about very thoughtful and deliberate monitoring and identifying the trigger points for action versus falling or being susceptible to this urge to start making decisions before decisions really need to be made,” Shpiner said.

Storms like Hurricane Dorian in 2019, which prompted the cancellation of three class days despite a model-predicted shift far north of South Florida, force Shpiner to weigh his decisions based primarily on the worst possible outcome. He must adapt to the ever-shifting “cone of uncertainty,” which approximates the range of potential courses for any given storm.

McNoldy explained this uncertainty by using this summer’s Hurricane Grace as an example. Grace, which eventually developed into a category three hurricane and made landfall in Mexico’s gulf coast city of Poza Rica early Saturday morning, may have hit South Florida during orientation week if it had taken one of the other courses among the possible tracks predicted by hurricane models, McNoldy said.

“That’s an example where it was kind of a high nervousness level, because if we actually did have the other possibility happen and we were at risk on Wednesday into Thursday, well, there’s student move-ins happening this week, and you can’t stop a hurricane from coming if it’s gonna come, but it sure makes things messy,” McNoldy said.

The process of tracking storm systems can range from long term forecasts of a several month season, based on variables like regional ocean temperatures, to the operational forecasts of active storm systems provided by the National Hurricane Center and other organizations that Shpiner and his team rely on McNoldy and other experts to interpret. These forecasts are adjusted as possible outcomes are eliminated over the course of a storm’s journey.

“Think of it like a tree of ifs,” McNoldy said. “The further out you are in time before the impact time, you just increase that chain of ifs.

McNoldy, despite his passion for the study of natural phenomena, says he loathes the feeling that comes when a “chain of ifs” that could impede a storm’s march toward Miami ticks down to one likely conclusion: impact.

“Not good, those would be my two words,” he said. “It’s not like there’s anything I can do about it; I’m just relaying what nature is doing.”

During what McNoldy says is an above average 2021 hurricane season, the responsibility of knowing what to do to prepare and respond falls instead on Shpiner and his team at UM, the Miami Dade County Office of Emergency Management, and other university signees of the National Intercollegiate Mutual Aid Agreement, which provides for the exchange of resources between colleges during isolated emergencies.

UM, Shpiner says, was the first university to activate the agreement, with emergency managers from St. Edward’s University and the State University of New York traveling to Coral Gables to assist UM’s recovery effort after 2017’s Hurricane Irma. Hurricane Irma forced the cancellation of three weeks of classes and led to the bussed evacuation of the last 150 students left on campus to a Red Cross shelter in advance of its impact.

Despite a steady stream of strong hurricanes since 1992’s devastating Hurricane Andrew, which left over 4,000 combined students and parents on campus for orientation week stranded in dorms without electricity, running water or functioning toilets, Whitely says that structural damage to on-campus facilities has been minimal during even the strongest storms. In the years since, Whitely says, UM has built a formidable emergency response team with the resources to maintain safety during even the strongest hurricanes.

“Just because you haven’t had a category five in 29 years doesn’t mean you aren’t prepared for one,” Whitely said. “We have such better infrastructure, greater support. Before I thought sometimes we were too siloed, but to have a department on campus with the sole responsibility of responding to major emergencies, I think it’s been a great change for us.”

The Office of Emergency Management recommends that all students download the University of Miami app, which provides access to the U.S. emergency guide and other action guidelines for disaster preparedness. Students should also enter their phone number on Canelink to receive emergency alerts and prepare an evacuation plan with their family members in the case of a category three or greater hurricane, with more information from the office’s website. The university has systems and people in place, Shpiner says, to alert students to any storm that may pose a threat to South Florida.

“My body clock is quite literally set to the National Hurricane Center advisories at 2 o’clock in the morning and at 2 in the afternoon,” Shpiner said. “There’s nothing that catches us off guard.”

With McNoldy exchanging his childhood VCR for two supercomputers and an office overlooking Biscayne Bay, and Shpiner monitoring every storm like it’s bound for Coral Gables, undecided business major and first-year Miami Hurricane James Zully has a message for incoming storms.

“We’re not scared of hurricanes, they’re just something that happens here.”