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Weathering the Storm

Weathering the Storm

By David Villavicencio
HurricaneSports.com

ORLANDO, Fla. – The Miami Hurricanes face Toledo this Saturday, Sept. 23 at Hard Rock Stadium, just like the schedule has always said they would.

The path they took to the game, however, has been anything but routine.

Saturday’s game against the Rockets is Miami’s second game of the season – not its fourth. The Hurricanes aren’t preparing for the game at the familiar confines of Greentree, but 240 miles away at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando.

That path was dictated by Hurricane Irma, which forced the entire University of Miami athletic department to adjust its plans over the past two weeks — but never its focus.

Hurricane Irma developed in the Atlantic Ocean on Aug. 30, just a few days before the Hurricanes football team opened its season with a 41-13 victory over Bethune-Cookman to kick off the year.

Two days later, Hurricane Irma seized all the headlines, becoming a Category 5 storm that caught the attention of everyone in South Florida and the Caribbean.

Meteorologists and hurricane experts forecasted a path that had Hurricane Irma, a powerful and catastrophic storm that measured over 350 miles wide and had sustained winds as high as 185 miles-per-hour, headed on a collision course with Miami.

South Florida residents began their hurricane preparations and the administration at the Miami athletic department did the same. Director of Athletics Blake James and Deputy Director of Athletics/COO Jennifer Strawley began looking at all options for the Hurricanes just days before Miami’s football, women’s soccer, women’s volleyball and men’s and women’s cross country teams were set to compete.

“From the very beginning, our focus was safety and the physical and mental well-being of our student-athletes and our staff,” Strawley said. “We decided on Wednesday that it would be in the best interests of our student-athletes and our staff to cancel the games and dismiss our student-athletes. It was a decision based on our core values and the information we had at the time, which was that our plane may not be able to get out of Miami and, more importantly, not return in a timely fashion after game. Governor Scott had declared a State of Emergency for the state and President Frenk had done the same for campus.

“We had student-athletes whose parents wanted them to leave Miami. We had staff who needed to prepare for a hurricane and make decisions for their families.  Given all the factors, we made the decision that we thought was best for our student-athletes and staff.”

Miami’s football team did not travel to play at Arkansas State on Sept. 9. Volleyball’s trip to play at a tournament at Temple University in Philadelphia was called off, while two home soccer matches and a home cross country meet were also canceled.

James and Strawley quickly moved on to the next major task at hand– what to do with hundreds of student-athletes as one of the most powerful storms in history was headed directly towards South Florida.

“After the decision was made regarding our contests and campus was going to evacuate.  We knew we needed a plan for any student-athlete that did not have a place to go.”  Strawley said. “We looked at many options, but with all evacuating South Florida, we decided to find a hotel in Orlando that was willing to work with us and keep us safe. At that point we offered every student-athlete the opportunity to go to Orlando by bus late Thursday evening. ”

The Hurricanes boarded buses outside the Hecht Athletic Center in Coral Gables and hit the road at 10 p.m., on Thursday, Sept. 7.

“We left Miami Thursday night with about 35 student-athletes from football, track and tennis,” Strawley said. “Thursday if someone did not have a place to go, we were offering them an opportunity to go to Orlando.  The same thing happened once we were in Orlando and the storm started moving and we had people in Gainesville and Tampa and we told them to come to Orlando. Any student-athlete or staff member who needed to get somewhere to be safe, we were providing them somewhere safe to go.

“I don’t think I ever saw what U Family meant more than I did in the last week. We had three buses leave in the middle of the night Thursday to drive nine and a half hours to Orlando. There wasn’t one complaint. There wasn’t one annoyance. It was just everyone being thankful. It was the best worst bus ride I’ve ever been on. We were pulling away from Miami and I get emotional. I remember thinking my house might not be here when I come back and our city may never be the same. We all left teammates, colleagues and friends who stayed behind to weather the storm and we feared for their safety.  We were all trying to sort through so many emotions. People were just silent on the bus because it was emotional. But we were all there for each other.”

In addition to Strawley, Hurricanes head football coach Mark Richt and his wife Katharyn, and some athletics staff members were on the initial bus ride evacuating Miami to weather the storm together in Orlando.

“When that option became open, I knew a lot of our players were going to be going,” Richt said.  “I didn’t know how many would end up going to Orlando, but that’s when Katharyn and I decided to come up with the rest of the team that wasn’t with families.”

Once there everyone waited out the storm. Hurricane Irma eventually made landfall in the Keys early on the morning of Sept. 10, and then a second landfall in Marco Island later that day. South Florida may have avoided a direct hit, but was still hit hard. The hotel staff consistently updated the UM contingent so they could track the storm – and each other.  Miami held meetings in Orlando to update its student-athletes and staff and prepare them for next steps.

While Strawley may have played one of the bigger roles in organizing Miami’s plan and evacuation effort for Hurricane Irma, there were several Miami athletics staff members that that jumped in and were willing to do anything necessary to assure that the Hurricanes’ student-athletes, coaches and staff members would be safe.

“It was true teamwork from so many,” Strawley said. “Blake and I were in constant communication navigating all the information we had and determining next steps.  (Deputy Athletic Director/CFO) Jason Layton was in Orlando working with me.  (Director of Football Operations) Don Corzine and (assistant director of football operations) Justin Wells really stepped up to help, and not just for football, but for all of our student-athletes and staff.. (Travel coordinator) Cheyenne Cousineau was unbelievable in trying to navigate what we needed to do in order to mobilize so many moving parts.  Director of Women’s Basketball Operations Margie Gill went above and beyond to help with all logistics. Associate Director of Special Events and Community Relations Leah Gross coordinated and managed an excel spread sheet of where every student-athlete and staff member was during the storm.  Senior Associate Athletics Director Brent Crank stepped in to help coordinate needs of our sports programs.  There were so many others who jump in as well.  Everyone was willing to do whatever was needed to help.”

The U Family, like any other family, was looking out for one another. While there was a sense of safety and security for the student-athletes, coaches and staff in Orlando, there was also a system in place to check on all the other members of Miami’s athletic department. The staff created a spreadsheet with the information of everyone’s whereabouts, and messages were sent out to try and check on every member of the U Family after the storm passed.

“We tracked every single staff member and student-athlete and where they were during the storm,” Strawley said. “After the storm we made contact with all student-athletes and staff members.  Sometimes that took time because people didn’t have power and didn’t have cell service. But with the help of all our head coaches we were able to account for all our student-athletes.  That moment we knew all our staff and student-athletes were safe, was one I will never forget.  All that mattered was that our U Family was safe.”

One of the last student-athletes they were able to connect with was sophomore linebacker Zach McCloud.

“They actually sent out an e-mail,” McCloud said. “Everybody on the team had service, I guess, and they actually sent out an e-mail saying specifically I was the only one that didn’t reply to the messages. Travis Homer’s mom came and reached out. She drove to my house. I couldn’t reach anybody…That enforces the feeling that I have a family and that people care about the other people on this team.”

Homer’s mother tracked down McCloud, who was out helping people in his neighborhood, and word made it back that every Hurricane student-athlete was safe and accounted for. A sense of relief came over Strawley before she quickly moved on to the next challenge facing her and the Hurricanes.

“First it was managing the unknown of the storm and next we were managing the unknown of when we could return to Miami,” Strawley said. “Blake was in contact with campus and damage was being assessed.  We didn’t know the extent of the damage, we didn’t know when classes were going to start and we didn’t know when we could go back to Miami.  The dorms were closed and we weren’t taking a bus back to Miami until we could get the students back to a safe place. There was all this unknown and we couldn’t stay in the hotel we were in, so we moved to another hotel in Orlando.

“We didn’t know when we could go back to Miami and we had student-athletes scattered all across the country. We knew we had to mobilize.  We rented a bus from Atlanta and told coaches if they got their student-athletes to Atlanta they could take that bus to Orlando and eventually Miami.  We offered for student-athletes and staff to meet us in Orlando and we would take them in at our hotel.  We had over 80 student-athletes come through Orlando. Again it was family, you would walk through the lobby and start hugging people because you saw they were okay.”

Student-athletes from football, men’s and women’s track and cross country, men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s tennis, women’s golf, volleyball and swimming passed through Orlando on their way back to Miami after Hurricane Irma. Miami women’s basketball coach Katie Meier took eight of her players and one women’s golfer to her sister’s house in Atlanta, while several parents of men’s basketball players housed their sons and their teammates as well.

Richt was in Orlando for the entire time the Miami athletics party was there. Several other football coaches made their way through Orlando.  Katie Meier, men’s basketball assistant coach Chris Caputo and assistant coaches from men’s and women’s tennis were among the over 50 staff members that were in Orlando at some point before, during or after Hurricane Irma hit.

“I think one of the best things about this entire time was the breadth of who we touched,” Strawley said. “It wasn’t just football. It was five international men’s tennis student-athletes, four of whom are freshmen just getting to Miami and we were able to get them in a safe spot. It was five track student-athletes who were in the same situation. The breadth and diversity of student-athletes, coaches and staff who came through Orlando was amazing.  As a department, I think we really helped our student-athletes and staff get through a very difficult situation. There wasn’t a lot of sleep and there was a lot of organizational planning and logistics and trying to make difficult decisions of safety and welfare, but I feel good about what we were able to do for our student-athletes and our staff.”

The planning and logistics did not end there, as the Hurricanes needed to find accommodations for their teams as they began preparing for upcoming competitions. Football is set to host Toledo Saturday, and will practice in Orlando until Thursday. Volleyball is opening ACC play at home on Friday. Soccer has an upcoming match in Charlottesville, Va., and cross country has a race in Gainesville, Fla. Classes are scheduled to resume on Monday, Sept. 25, 19 days after classes were first canceled in advance of the storm.

Arrangements were made and each team had a plan put in place. The path back to normalcy had been laid out and Miami’s student-athletes, coaches and staff were on the way back to the lives they were used to before Hurricane Irma.

“We had gone over a week, with our teams not having any type of full team activity.  So getting, women’s soccer the opportunity to get back out on a field as a team for the first time was their first step towards being back to normal,” Strawley said. “Football went on a team run and all got to be together again. I think that’s the first step of not only moving on, but of getting back to normal life. They’re young people and they’ve been through a pretty traumatic experience. Whether they went home with their families and boarded up their house and spent the storm there and had to spend time cleaning up the damage or they’ve been in a hotel room for five days worrying about what is going on back in Miami, it’s pretty traumatic. Now they are getting back to where they can just be a student-athlete again. I think the ability for them to be able to do that is what’s helping them move forward.”

Football is now mobilized in Orlando, thanks to great support from Florida Citrus Sports.  Women’s soccer is now in Charlottesville.  Women’s swimming and cross country are in Gainesville.  All other sports developed plans for their teams to move forward and bring back some normalcy.  Any student-athlete living on campus who cannot return to their dorm until Friday, Sept. 22, was given the option to stay at a hotel in Miami.  Plans are in place and the Hurricanes are moving beyond Irma with a new sense of resilience and family.

“At the end of the day, I feel like we did right for our student-athletes and staff, Strawley said. “That’s what is most important. That is what Miami is about. When you send your son or daughter to Miami, no matter the circumstances, we are going to take care of them, we are going to hug them and we are going to look after them and help them through the good times and be there in the tough times. It’s about the bonds we build that make us stronger and helped us get through this together.”