Riding the Storm: How Embry-Riddle is Preparing for an Active Storm Season

Students work year-round in Embry-Riddle’s Meteorology Laboratory, learning how to track storms and present news and weather updates to the public.
Students work year-round in Embry-Riddle’s Meteorology Laboratory, learning how to track storms and present news and weather updates to the public. (Photo: Daryl Labello/Embry-Riddle)

As of June 1, the 2024 Atlantic Hurricane season is officially upon us, and it’s expected to be more active than normal. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, is predicting above-average hurricane activity in the Atlantic basin this year, due to warm waters and a weakening El Niño.

A range of 17 to 25 total named storms (winds of 39 mph or higher) is forecasted. Of those, eight to 13 are forecast to become hurricanes (winds of 74 mph or higher), including four to seven major hurricanes (Category 3, 4 or 5; with winds of 111 mph or higher). Meteorologists have a 70% confidence in these ranges.

While that is concerning to residents up and down the Atlantic seaboard, it is of particular interest to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Daytona Beach Campus, which expects to host more than 8,000 students this fall.

According to Lisa Kollar, dean of students for the Daytona Beach Campus, “How we prepare for hurricanes is a question we receive regularly from parents, and we are extremely sensitive to their concerns.”

And hurricane preparedness is a topic that the leadership of Embry-Riddle does not take lightly. In fact, preparing for the storm season is nearly a yearlong process.

Storm Watch

Enter associate professor of Meteorology Dr. Randell Barry. “We start to monitor the upcoming hurricane season and NOAA’s prediction for hurricane activity in the Atlantic basin early in the year.” Barry has been advising the campus on the potential impacts of hurricanes, and severe weather in general, for over 20 years.

He cautions, though, that while the predictions can be accurate, the storm paths are highly variable. “We might see a prediction of 25 named storms, but that doesn’t mean that a storm will hit Daytona Beach, or that all of those storms will hit Florida, for that matter.” There have been active past seasons during which Florida didn’t see many storms. “But that’s not to say we shouldn’t be as prepared as possible.”

Hoping for the Best While Preparing for the Worst

As the temporary home to thousands of young people, many of whom are away from home for the first extended period of time, it’s crucial that Embry-Riddle does not leave safety to chance. No one knows that better than Jackie Litzinger, the university’s executive director of Campus Safety. Chief Jackie, as Litzinger is known around campus, takes her role and the lives of her students seriously. “When it comes to storms, we don’t play around.”

Reporting to the senior vice president and chief operating officer, Chief Jackie is often the leader making the decision to initiate the campus Emergency Operations Team (EOT), the essential staff who are responsible for managing campus emergencies or severe weather conditions.

Chief Jackie has been through multiple hurricanes and tropical storms during her five-year tenure with Embry-Riddle. “While I’ve seen plenty of storms, never once have I felt as if we’ve overreacted with our safety procedures. We don’t want to disrupt lives, but when lives are at stake, we will always err on the side of caution.”

When the EOT is enacted, the structure mirrors that of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) National Incident Management System (NIMS), though any response outside of Embry-Riddle will be coordinated through the corresponding emergency response agency. In the case of a hurricane, the most likely agency partners would be organized through the Volusia County Emergency Operations Center.

“We partner closely with Volusia County in the event of emergencies, particularly if we would need to evacuate students, staff and faculty due to a hurricane to a designated emergency shelter,” Litzinger said.

And how do Chief Jackie and the EOT decide what level of precaution to take in the case of a hurricane threat? “During this season, I’m closely aligned with Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Rodney Cruise, who, along with the university president, would make the final decision to implement the Hurricane Plan based on forecasting and advice from Dr. Barry.” And while there is no definitive rule as to whether campus may be closed, again, Embry-Riddle tends to be cautious. “If a Category 1 hurricane is imminent, we will close campus and we may evacuate, if we feel a threat is present. In the case of a Category 2 through 5 storm, it’s highly likely campus will be evacuated.”

Emergency updates will be posted to the Embry-Riddle external website and intranet, as well as sent out through social media and the RAVE Mobile Safety application, to which all students have access.

A Parent’s Greatest Fear

Beyond a parent’s fear for their child’s immediate safety is also the inability to reach a child in the event of evacuation. Dean of Students Lisa Kollar is sensitive to those fears. Even before freshman orientation takes place, she instructs students to review the Embry-Riddle Hurricane Preparation information that’s updated on a regular basis, and also take personal responsibility for their safety.

“All on-campus and off-campus students should have personal evacuation plans ready for severe weather, specifically hurricanes,” she said. “And it’s important that students share that plan with family and friends to ensure they know how to connect with their loved ones.”

When an evacuation is ordered, the Housing and Residence Life teams will go door-to-door ensuing that all on-campus students are transported to designated county shelters. Off-campus students also have the option to evacuate with on-campus students, if no other alternative plans have been identified.

Embry-Riddle also employs the Eagle Guardian app, an application that turns any smartphone into a personal safety device for students, faculty, and staff, whether they are on or off campus. While the technology can be used in various emergency scenarios, in the event of a hurricane or an evacuation, students can add friends and family members to their network to share updates and location information.

And What About Those Planes?

Embry-Riddle, offering one of the top university flight programs in the country, houses 105 planes at its Daytona Beach Campus. “While the priority of the university is to ensure the safety of our students, faculty and staff during a storm, these aircraft are critical resources that are susceptible to damage during hurricanes and need to be protected, as well,” said Dr. Ken Byrnes, assistant dean, Flight chair and associate professor of Aeronautical Science. “Damage to the fleet would create a serious setback in our training ability after the storm passes; aircraft are scarce, taking significant time and funds to procure.”

Embry-Riddle follows a very thorough procedure when determining if and when the fleet would need to be evacuated. This procedure starts many days in advance of the evacuation decision, and it requires significant logistical planning and includes many route and destination options for the fleet. During the past few hurricane seasons when evacuation of the fleet was necessary, Auburn University in Alabama has graciously hosted the Embry-Riddle fleet and flight crews.

Should a hurricane hit in 2024, the Flight Department will try something new. According to Byrnes, “We will have the option of housing at least some of our planes in the parking structure at the edge of campus. The garage can hold approximately 38 planes.”

What Can Students and Parents Do to Prepare?

If your student is attending college anywhere in Florida or along the eastern seaboard, resources are available to help you prepare. Just a few are available below:

But perhaps the most important preparation activity items for loved ones who may be riding out a storm is connection.

Kollar emphasized, “Embry-Riddle will do everything in its power to keep all lives safe in uncertain times.” But parents and their children should talk about preparation ahead of time. “Know where your child plans to go and how he or she plans to get there.”

Posted In: Institutional News | Security Intelligence and Safety