GAINESVILLE, Fla. (UF/IFAS) — As each June brings a new hurricane season, the people of Florida begin to ready themselves for any storm that may target the state’s shorelines. Fresh in the minds of many this year, though, is Hurricane Michael, which struck the Panhandle with category 5 strength eight months ago and left many in recovery mode.
This includes faculty and staff from the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension offices, whose work continued and even aided in the recovery process of their communities, said Pete Vergot, UF/IFAS Extension Northwest District director. The counties hardest hit by the storm – Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson, Liberty and Washington – are all in Vergot’s district.
“Our faculty and staff are incredibly hard-working,” Vergot said. “Some of them have homes that remain in various states of repair, but they come in each day and serve the community.”
In addition to county offices taking on new roles like relief distribution points or opening their doors to FEMA’s Disaster Recovery Centers, the work of UF/IFAS Extension faculty in these counties has included hosting programs and workshops, many of which have focused on post-hurricane needs. For example, Vergot said, their educational outreach in the immediate aftermath of the storm highlighted important issues like food safety after a power outage, and later topics included yard maintenance workshops involving replacing sod and replanting trees.
Youth programs have also continued, bringing a sense of normalcy for families. Vergot noted that the UF/IFAS Extension Florida 4-H summer residential camps led by faculty in these counties even exceeded their registration limits, wait-listing some children.
Much of this work was helped by an already-established collaborative network among the UF/IFAS Extension Northwest District, Vergot added. Several program implementation teams – in 4-H, agriculture, horticulture, natural resources, and family and consumer sciences – communicate regularly and work together year-round to develop and deliver programming.
“I had faculty from surrounding counties taking turns filling in for their counterparts,” Vergot said. “Or someone would call and say, ‘What’s your immediate need? I will take care of it.’”
The damage caused to the Extension offices has further complicated the agents’ service, said Vergot, who can quickly run through the buildings’ current statuses. The UF/IFAS Extension Bay and Holmes county offices are still unusable, with their faculty and staffs currently working out of local libraries and even a classroom in a Florida 4-H livestock barn.
The UF/IFAS Extension Jackson County office is operational, as are the offices in Liberty County, which awaits repairs to cosmetic damage, and Washington County, which is managing its leaking roof.
UF/IFAS Extension Calhoun County’s faculty and staff are temporarily displaced while repairs are made to the roof, floors, and some interior and exterior walls. And Extension in Gadsden County intends to build a new facility, but because of the increased cost of construction, commissioners still haven’t given the project the green light.
These offices’ continued service was also due in part to their “continuity of operations,” or COOP, plans, which Vergot said happened to be completed not long before Hurricane Michael hit.
Following Hurricane Irma in 2017, county Extension agents statewide set out to develop COOP plans to establish a broad network through which service would resume uninterrupted following any disaster and outreach efforts could be coordinated. COOP plan development was proposed and led by Angie Lindsey, an assistant professor in the UF/IFAS department of family, youth and community sciences. She learned of the plans through her involvement with the Extension Disaster Education Network (EDEN), which is a multi-state network of extension professionals who develop educational resources to reduce the impact of disasters.
“You want to be as proactive as possible in preparing for these types of disasters,” Lindsey said. “But you have to have some level of flexibility to be reactive.”
Although Vergot praised the COOP plans’ effectiveness in providing his offices a course of action following Hurricane Michael, he also emphasized that preparations can only provide a rough guideline for the unexpected.
“Michael came fast, so it wasn’t a lot of time to prepare,” he said. “We were prepared on paper, but no one was prepared for the devastation caused.”