While Pasco County was spared the death and destruction that Hurricane Ian left its in path, it didn’t escape massive disruptions caused by the hurricane’s threat.
As Hurricane Ian headed toward Florida, weather experts and local officials feared there could be a direct hit on the Tampa Bay region.
Bracing for that possibility, local governments issued mandatory evacuations for residents living in the most vulnerable areas.
Pasco County Schools Superintendent Kurt Browning closed the district’s schools and child care programs, and canceled school-related events.
The district was forced to close its schools because of the serious nature of Hurricane Ian’s potential dangers, Browning said.
The district also opened shelters to give evacuees a place to go.
The operations ran so smoothly that people often forget the massive amount of effort required to make that happen, Browning said, during the Pasco County School Board’s Oct. 4 meeting.
The superintendent complimented everyone involved in the shelter efforts.
He took a few minutes to detail the efforts required.
He thanked the staff and volunteers who were involved in getting schools ready to serve as shelters, then operating the shelters and then getting the schools ready for classes to resume.
The district had shelter operations at Cypress Creek, Sunlake, Wiregrass Ranch, Wesley Chapel and Fivay high schools; at Cypress Creek, Centennial, Weightman and Pasco middle schools; and, at the River Ridge Complex.
The superintendent told the school board, audience and those watching the board meeting on YouTube that he couldn’t let the day pass without expressing gratitude for the district’s incredible team.
“The folks that make it look seamless in this district are sitting before you today,” Browning said. “These men and these women, around this table, are the ones that make it happen.
“The problem with making it look so seamless is that people don’t actually understand the amount of work that goes into preparing to close schools, open shelters, make sure they’re staffed, make sure you have food,” Brown said.
“They make it seamless. They do. But I’ll tell you, the people who are sitting around this table today worked their tails off.”
The superintendent praised the efforts of Mary Martin and her human resources team, who ensured the shelters were staffed.
“Mary and her team just knocked it out of the park,” Browning said.
He singled out Stephanie Spicknall, director of food and nutrition services (FNS), and her team, too.
Browning said he suspects some evacuees are “somewhat shocked” when they arrive at a school-based shelter and are served hot meals, instead of cold sandwiches.
“That doesn’t happen by accident, it happens because the FNS teams are there in those schools and they are preparing meals for those evacuees,” the superintendent said.
Browning also highlighted the efforts of Gary Sawyer, transportation director, and his drivers for getting people where they need to go.
He gave a shoutout to the system’s maintenance and custodial crews for getting the shelters ready for evacuees, and then after those sheltering had left, getting the schools ready to resume classes.
Browning also had good words for Michael Baumaister, the district’s chief of safety and emergency operations, and for Lt. Tom Perron, on that team, who was at the county’s Emergency Operations Center.
School board member Allen Altman noted that during Hurricane Irma, district shelters had a greater influx of evacuees, and issues arose because they had not been staffed with security or medical teams.
Those issues have been resolved, improving shelter operations, Altman said.
The changes occurred because of suggestions made after Hurricane Irma, the school board member said.
Browning said he’s looking forward to the debriefing regarding this year’s shelter operations, to see what other improvements can be made.
Betsy Kuhn, assistant superintendent for support services, told the board: “I know there are things that our shelter operations can do better, but I think, overall, we were very encouraged by what we saw.”
Kuhn was happy to see improvements implemented in this year’s operations, based on lessons learned from Hurricane Irma.
She expressed gratitude for the help by human resources, to manage shelter staffing.
“That was a huge lift,” Kuhn said.
She also mentioned the contributions from Chief Baumaister and Lt. Perron, of the safety and emergency operations team.
“Issues like this really show how people come together and how amazing of a team we have,” Kuhn said.
She described a moment that was particularly gratifying.
She said she was at a shelter and observed a principal checking in an evacuee.
“You would have thought this person was checking into the Ritz Carlton, the way this principal was treating this evacuee,” Kuhn said.
“It was just a very heartwarming thing to see that our team comes together in a crisis. No egos. Everybody pitches in, does the work and gets it done,” Kuhn said.
School board chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong also weighed in: “I can tell you what’s most meaningful to the evacuees … is the fact that they felt so welcomed and they felt so safe.
“That’s what our employees and our staff, and our teachers and principals were able to do — able to give those people a place where they felt safe and they felt welcomed,” the board chairwoman said. “If we can make them feel like that, then we were a success.”
Published October 12, 2022