Hurricane 2019: ‘We’re not going to give up.’ What a school superintendent learned from Michael.

Bay County School Superintendent Bill Husfelt had to turn his schools into shelters and then back into schools again.
A classroom damaged by Hurricane Hurricane Michael at Springfield Elementary School in Bay County. The school remained closed in December as repairs were completed. [MONICA HERNDON   |   Times]
A classroom damaged by Hurricane Hurricane Michael at Springfield Elementary School in Bay County. The school remained closed in December as repairs were completed. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published June 4, 2019|Updated June 11, 2019

Bay County in Florida’s Panhandle continues to reel from the after effects of Hurricane Michael months after the storm ravaged the Gulf coast community.

The school system was forced to close down damaged campuses and consolidate others, its enrollment shrank and its budget was strained to the point that layoffs appear imminent. The Category 5 event was nothing like superintendent Bill Husfelt had ever anticipated.

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In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, edited for clarity and length, Husfelt offered some insights that other school and government leaders might consider as they approach this hurricane season.

What did you learn from the hurricane that you weren’t prepared for, that you had to learn on the ground running?

The worst thing … was lack of communication. We went for days without having any real effective way to communicate. And I plan on sharing this with leaders. To this day, I still get people stopping me and saying ‘thank you’ for going on the radio and talking. We went on the emergency radio channel at the college … and they would play it constantly throughout the day. I was just trying to encourage people and tell them not to worry about school. We were going to keep on paying employees. I would tell them when we were setting up meetings and everything. That was the only communication many of us had. …

Bay County School Superintendent Bill Husfelt. [Bay County School District]
Bay County School Superintendent Bill Husfelt. [Bay County School District]

Have a rendezvous point or a method to communicate to get out so you can reach out to family other than just your cellphone. Because they’re not always going to work. Verizon had many, many, many issues here. It was so bad here that they gave us three free months of service. Everyone.

What did not go smoothly for the school district?

Well, sheltering was our biggest nightmare because of housing. We had three (school) shelters that were used, and getting them back was a challenge to where we could plan to open school back when remediation and temporary repairs were done.

I gave up my largest school with the largest footprint to make it one massive shelter. … The deal I made with (Bay County) Emergency Management, (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and the governor’s office was look, let me have all the others back and you take this one school. And I had split schedules in three high schools at the same time. …

I had the high schools going to the middle schools in the morning, and then vice versa. We had middle school kids unfortunately going to school from 1-6 p.m. at night, which was another problem because we had no streetlights anymore.

But you had to get some normalcy back, though, right?

We did. Starting school was the right thing. It’s just that we had to do it differently because we lost so many facilities. We had so many schools severely damaged, and we couldn’t put kids in them. And out of 16 Title I elementary schools we lost 25 percent of their population. (Editor’s note: Title I elementary schools have a high-percentage of students from low-income families.)

So as you enter this new hurricane season, what is your biggest concern?

The process of sheltering had to change. It was ineffective. We really learned a lot about working with the agencies that operate a shelter, and how each agency has its own set of priorities that don’t necessarily match ours. So we are completely revamping the way we’re going to look at managing shelters, opening shelters and running them.

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We’re going to (put out) a lot of community information about what’s reasonable to expect in a shelter, what it’s like when you go to a shelter, how long that shelter might be open and how it’s going to run.

So we’re completely upending that, and also working on providing training for our staff. Because our staff are educators, and they can do anything you want with running schools, but they didn’t have any experience with running a long-term shelter.

What about the issue of educating students after the storm passed?

If God forbid another storm like that hits us again, I’m pretty sure most people are going to leave this area forever. I say that partially tongue in cheek but partially not. People don’t understand what we’re dealing with and the magnitude. …

The bureaucracy in dealing with this is a nightmare. So we learned a lot about what to do and what not to do. We just drafted a brand new sheltering agreement with the county. … The problem is, when we open a shelter they want our personnel there to have the keys, open the building and do everything. But we were watching the mismanagement of it, the craziness of it, the disorganization. And so (staff) and I quickly learned that we could do it a lot more effectively and make sure it’s done right. … They were very appreciative. …

The only thing I begged them for, and they agreed, is they’ve got to have a shelter for the dogs. Our problem is, when you keep animals — and there were more than dogs — in schools for that long, the nastiness and the disgust that is created by animals is unacceptable in school buildings.

If you were going to talk to a superintendent in a coastal area, what would be your advice to get them ready for before and after a hurricane?

There’s a list of things to do before, during and after. Communication is all three. And realizing that you had better have a plan with shelters and how they’re going to operate, and then a plan to reopen.

I’ve learned some things. The amount of money you have to pay these companies for the restoration, which is immediate right after. Because we have 43 schools, and every one of them had roof damage or more. … The expense of that is huge. You’re paying a premium rate. But there are some programs where you have some options to get into early contracts with companies like that and not pay that exorbitant rate. I definitely would look at that. And make sure you’ve got good insurance. ...

So basically you’re telling people who run school districts to be prepared, but don’t be surprised at how much you weren’t actually prepared for.

That’s it. There’s no way in our wildest dreams that we would believe that we’d be without communication for up to a week after the storm … or that I didn’t get power for 10 days. I didn’t even have internet and cable for three months. It’s those kinds of things that you just never think — we’re so used to having it and then you don’t have it anymore and it ain’t coming back any time soon.

Is there any final message that you have to share?

Here’s the thing. You’ve got to take care of your people. I think the biggest thing that I have heard the difference was … tell people to remain calm. Panicking and worrying is not going to solve anything. We had people worrying about their paychecks, kids worried they weren’t going to graduate. Everybody had a worry. What I did in those radio conversations was say, ‘Guys, you’re going to graduate on time. If you’ve done everything we’ve asked you to do, I’m not going to stop you from graduating. Employees, we’re going to pay you. We’re not going to stop paying you. We wouldn’t do that to you. We’re going to take care of you. But you have to make the time up.’ I mean, it’s conversations like that.

Telling them, ‘Look, we have a long road ahead of us, but we’re going to do it. We’re strong. We’re not going to give up.’ People just need to keep that in mind.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at Follow @JeffSolochek.

2019 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide

HURRICANE SEASON IS HERE: Get ready and stay informed at

PREPARE YOUR STUFF: Get your documents and your data ready for a storm

BUILD YOUR KIT: The stuff you’ll need to stay safe — and comfortable — for the storm

PROTECT YOUR PETS: Your pets can’t get ready for a storm. That’s your job

NEED TO KNOW: Click here to find your evacuation zone and shelter

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