On September 16, during the busiest month for tropical weather, Hurricane Sally came ashore five days after forming off the southern coast of Florida.
Originally forecasted to make landfall in Louisiana, Hurricane Sally strengthened into a Category 2 storm with winds of 105 mph upon impact near Gulf Shores, Alabama, about 33 miles west of Pensacola. According to on-campus measurements, the storm dropped about 36" of rain and brought wind speeds of 72 mph with gusts of 93 mph.
Sheltered in their residence halls, students quickly became familiar with the storm’s roaring winds and pelting rains. “I was content staying in my building,” said Elsa Flickema (So., MI). “My roommates and I kept looking out our window at the wind and flying debris. I was expecting the hurricane to be louder and have more thunder and lightning. Besides the wind, I did not hear any of the trees falling or huge crashes. I was fast asleep for most of the hurricane.”
Sally landed in the same location as—and exactly sixteen years after—Hurricane Ivan (Category 3) in 2004. Between the two storms, the College established key preparations for events of this nature. With the on-campus generators and water wells, as well as a supply of bottled water and MREs (Meal, Ready-to-Eat), PCC stood ready to take care of students throughout the storm. “We learned some things from Hurricane Ivan 16 years ago,” said President Troy Shoemaker. “I thanked Dr. Horton over the weekend for his foresight in making preparations on campus in order to care for students in a natural emergency like this.”
A newer member of the PCC family, Chief of Safety and Security Reggie Bartkowski was impressed with how well the College was prepared for the storm. “Hurricanes are unpredictable and can change course quickly. I expected this storm to be in New Orleans and it ended up just west of Pensacola,” he said. “PCC has done years of preparing the college campus for major storms by putting in emergency alert systems, backup generators, emergency food and water supplies, evacuation plans, and much more. With all the pre-storm preparations that were made, this made decision making during the storm much easier. The amazing attitude that people had after the storm was so encouraging to me. Everybody I talked to stated that they were just happy there were no injuries to anybody.”
The storm’s pace brought unique challenges on its own, and COVID-19 influenced some procedures as well. “Sheltering plans were modified for this storm because of COVID-19 so that students were not in large groups,” said Amy Glenn, chief communications officer. “Students can be safely sheltered in residence halls for hurricanes like this one that are below Category 3 strength. It was more comfortable for students to shelter in residence halls than it would have been to move to other facilities, though they were sheltered longer than usual because of the slow-moving storm.”
Ahead of the storm, maintenance crews made a sweep across campus, removing anything that could become a projectile in high winds. In the days following, they worked alongside several other teams and volunteers around the clock to get campus back in working order while lessening disruptions to residence hall life where possible. “The one challenge we had to face was changing the campus potable water systems over to our well water system. We have never needed to use this emergency backup plan before, and I am pleased to say it worked out just like it was supposed to,” said Peter Harrington, director of maintenance. “I was thankful for the excellent response to how students and staff all pulled together to get our campus cleaned up so quickly. The outpouring of help was such a blessing.”
On Thursday, students embraced the spirit of teamwork already exuded by staff and began volunteering to work alongside those who were already cleaning up. A couple days later, they were reaching out to the local community, helping remove debris from yards and neighborhoods. Through Saturday, student volunteers filled over 1,500 sign-up slots for assisting with clean-up. “I was thankful of course for safety [through the storm], but one thing that I was really thankful for was the energy and overall servant’s heart of the student body,” said Diana Menacho (Sr., VA), student body vice president. “This year has not been easy by any means. Seeing countless students take their free time to meet the needs of others without anything in return was moving. God has truly blessed PCC with a great student body!”
“We were grateful to be able to help clean up, and we had fun getting to know each other as we worked. I personally got to meet people I’d never met, and I enjoyed that immensely!” said Trista Allen (Sr., NC), who volunteered with a couple groups. “Also, getting to have Dr. Shoemaker come to each of our dorms to personally give us updates was awesome.”
“Without a doubt, I am thankful for the large amounts of volunteer students that literally cleaned up campus with their bare hands,” said Brian Wilson, director of grounds. “It also freed us to clean up larger debris that needed to be taken care of with equipment and vehicles. One of the challenges of responding to a hurricane is when a large tree falls. One of our tree care experts told me that we have one of the biggest oak trees in Pensacola on our property (and it’s still standing!). Removing a tree that measures over 40 inches at the trunk is quite a challenge. Mr. Scott Prickett and his crew responded to a tree that had fallen that was just that big. I am glad to say that the vast majority of our trees weathered the storm very well.”
Prayers were answered in more ways than one after Hurricane Sally. Those on campus remained safe throughout the storm, and nearby neighborhoods were thankful for the help in cleaning up debris and downed trees. Several expressed their gratitude on Facebook:
“Thank you to all the volunteers that went out to cleanup and into the community! It was a wonderful sight to see and what a blessing you are! What a wonderful way to serve!”
“Praise the Lord for the servants’ hearts in action! Continue to pray for healing and strength after the storm. Thank you for including us in your outreach.”
“My husband and I greatly benefited from one of the groups. They didn’t know, but the Lord used them as a direct answer to our prayers. They did above and beyond what I am sure they expected to do. We want to thank the Lord for sending them right when they were needed.”
While the storm was unexpected, PCC was geared up to sit it out and provide support to those who needed help. That will only continue in the weeks ahead.