On Sunday, September 10, 2017, one of the biggest hurricanes in history slammed into the Florida Keys. Hurricane Irma’s projected path and strength prompted the largest evacuation of Florida in history. Irma first came on my radar (pun intended) the weekend before it hit. If there is a positive side to hurricanes, it is the amount of time we have to prepare for their arrival. Meteorologists began taking notice of her around the first of the month. By Monday, six days before landfall, we knew Irma was one we would need to take seriously. Homes and businesses would need to be shuttered, schools closed, and grocery and hardware stores stripped of inventory.
I serve as the athletic director and a member of the school leadership team at Calvary Christian Academy (CCA) in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (CCA serves the families of over 1,800 children from infancy through high school.) The forecasts over the weekend prompted a leadership team meeting on Monday afternoon, the week before Irma hit. Early on, Hurricane Irma was projected to scrape the east coast and make a direct hit on our community.
The decision as to when to cancel school in the face of such an event can be complicated. As an institution that serves students, faculty, and staff, we desire to provide childcare for families as they prepare their homes and businesses while also providing enough time for employees to protect their property. With conditions expected to deteriorate mid-day on the following Saturday, CCA elected to close on Thursday and Friday.
With school cancellations announced, the academic rigor tends to trail off in light of the potentially life-changing event on the horizon. Though academics are winding down, school closings send an athletic department into a whirlwind of activity. Calvary Christian ended up canceling seven days of school.
. In those seven days, twenty-eight athletic contests, including two varsity football games, would be canceled or postponed. Our athletic administrative team worked meticulously to make sure every stakeholder, from opposing schools to officials’ associations to transportation companies, understood our school’s plan. We also needed to touch base with and confirm cell phone numbers for every athletic director of schools on the schedule for the next month to make sure we were aware when they would be returning to school.
A unique balance takes place in the days leading up to a hurricane. While I usually exchange texts and phone calls with my wife two or three times a day, the frequency ramped up considerably as we also had to determine what to do with our property and family. As part of the school’s leadership, I felt an urge to remain in town in order to assess the facilities and potential reopening of school in the aftermath of any hurricane damage. At the same time, I felt the pull to evacuate my family. Irma’s forecast to veer north and ravage the east coast was different from that of any other storm I had been through. With three young children, the idea of spending several days in ninety-degree heat without electricity pushed us over the edge and we headed to my sister’s farm in east Tennessee.
Our community was fortunate as Irma did not turn north as early as expected. By Monday afternoon, our team was on a conference call to begin assessing the damage and to determine when to reopen the school. Three main questions needed to be answered. First, when would the facility be able to open? Second, when would our staff be able to return? And third, when would we have enough students able to attend that we could provide a quality academic day? Early in the week, portions of the campus were flooded and still without power. Our facilities and operations team estimated the site would be back up and running by Thursday. Over twenty-five percent of our three-hundred-person staff had left the state. With limited fuel in the state, most would have a difficult time returning by the time power was restored. We assumed that the same percentage of students were gone. Taking all this into consideration, we felt it necessary to relieve the stress of opening the school too soon and gave everyone the full week and weekend to recover.
As is common with most crises, our community spent much of the Monday following the storm allowing students and teachers to share their Irma stories. In our weekly athletic meeting, our team spent half our time doing the same. By Tuesday, school was business as usual. It took about a week to get our athletic fields and facilities up to speed. Of the twenty-eight affected athletic contests, a half dozen were canceled. It took about a month for the athletic office to fully recover from the storm’s impact. Just as the final postponed games were played, the transition to winter sports began.
In America, it takes a crisis or natural disaster to make Maslow’s hierarchy abundantly clear. Physiological and safety needs are all that matter. As a native Floridian, I have been through at least a dozen storms, and each left me with unique considerations. Most notable is the reminder of the absolute privilege we have in living in America and in providing a quality education to our children. As a natural disaster bears down on your home, it is clear just how many privileges we enjoy, and just how unimportant they can be when all is said and done. Serving in Christian education becomes even more special during these seasons of life. Just a month prior, our leadership team created a list of single, elderly, or handicapped faculty and staff and paired them with another staff member who lived nearby and who could help them protect their homes. Our church provided outreach opportunities to minister to the community before and after the storm, and more souls were brought into the kingdom because of it. Though I would never wish for a natural disaster, it was encouraging to be able to glorify God in our response to it.
Keith Huisman serves as the athletic director and a member of the school leadership team at Calvary Christian Academy in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.