Florida State University

College of Social Sciences & Public Policy

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Emergency Management Program Assists During Hurricane Michael

As it has in a number of other natural disasters, the Emergency Management and Homeland Security (EMHS) program within the Center for Disaster Risk Policy (CDRP) at Florida State University assisted in preparations and post-storm operations during Hurricane Michael in early October 2018. Faculty, staff and students provided expertise, services and workforce to several partner organizations.

Forty-two FSU students, coordinated by EMHS, volunteered with the State Emergency Operations Center as call takers, scribes, and runners, providing critical services to the professional staff. Volunteers were placed in a variety of Emergency Support Function (ESF) teams, as well as in the State Watch Office and with the Department of Environmental Protection. Coordinated by EMHS personnel Bobby Duggleby and Audrey Heffron Casserleigh, these students filled staffing gaps and helped ensure the state’s response was an effective and as efficient as possible.

EMHS staffers Judith Cuadra and Malaika Samples worked in the university’s Emergency Operations Center to answer calls and compile data to free university decision-makers for critical preparedness, response and recovery activities.

The CDRP Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS, aka drone) team conducted a six-day deployment to Walton and Bay counties in the Florida Panhandle. Joined by the Center for Robot Assisted Search and Rescue and the Texas A&M Humanitarian Robotics and Artificial Intelligence Lab, the team performed missions for Walton County Emergency Management and Bay County Emergency Management that included initial reconnaissance, mapping and damage assessment.

The Walton County Emergency Management office linked the UAS team to the South Walton Fire District to determine the extent of the damage along the coastline. As soon as the winds died down on October 10, the team flew several sorties looking for damage.

At the same time, the Walton County EOC was learning that Bay County had been hit hard. There were verbal reports that some parts of Bay had been ‘destroyed’ but limited communication prevented planners from knowing how extensive the damage was.

On October 11, the team was sent to Bay County to perform rapid assessment of Mexico Beach, one of the areas hardest hit by the storm after the eyewall passed within a mile of the town. Despite limited communication to the area and roads blocked by power poles, fallen trees and debris, the team arrived in Mexico Beach to join the Florida Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 2 in search operations.
The UAS team flew recon flights using fixed wing and multi rotor UAS and provided that data to the Task Force as well as the Bay County Emergency Operations Center. Due to lack of working cellular or radio networks, the data had to be hand delivered.

With the initial recon of Mexico Beach completed, the county moved the UAS team to recon Panama City and the nearby town of Callaway. Once Bay County had a decent operational picture of the extent of the disaster, the FSU team was re-assigned to create a detailed map of the damage on Mexico Beach and to conduct nighttime search and rescue operation in the town.

On October 12, the team worked with task force personnel to search for heat signatures among the massive debris piles present in the beach community. These operations revealed several pockets of potential need, which the task force team searched by hand the following day.

The UAS mapping mission was spread over the next two days. During that time, CDRP ran Air Operations for the Mexico Beach area in conjunction with the Customs and Border Protection P3 Orion aircraft orbiting over the county. By directing manned and unmanned aircraft, CDRP helped establish safe and effective overflights of the area, managed multiple search operations and created a landing zone for National Guard helicopters.

“The EMHS/CDRP team was proud to have supported these government entities in a time of crisis,” said EMHS Director David Merrick. “We are all proud of our efforts to integrate unmanned systems into disaster decision making and provide volunteers. We’ve accomplished a lot, but there is always more work to be done.”

Previously, the EMHS/CRDP teams have assisted with Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, at the site of the Kilauea volcano eruption and in natural disasters and emergency preparedness training in several countries.
For more about the CDRP/EMHS program within the FSU College of Social Sciences and Public Policy, please visit cdrp.net.

CDRP/EMHS Director David Merrick and Special Projects Director Jarrett Broder plan mapping flights over Mexico Beach after Hurricane Michael.
The FSU EMHS team briefs Florida Senator Marco Rubio at the Bay County Emergency Operations Center.
Members of the CDRP/EMHS team with Senator Rubio: (l-r) Laura Hart, Rob McDaniel, David Merrick, Rubio, Jarrett Broder

All photos courtesy Center for Disaster Risk Policy, Florida State University