Campus News

When a hurricane hits

UNC may have not has as much damage as other parts of the state, but what can you do to help? And what happens in a hurricane anyway?

People sit around a computer monitoring something
When a crisis threatens, the University’s Emergency Operations Center sets up with representatives from key campus units to be able to respond quickly to changing situations.

Carolina dodged the worst of Hurricane Florence, the storm that hovered over the southeastern part of the state for days, causing torrential flooding and leaving millions without power. But that doesn’t mean that the University wasn’t impacted by the storm.

In this issue of the Gazette, we have featured an array of Hurricane Florence stories, from the research that predicted it to the cleanup afterward. Along the way you’ll meet hardworking employees who put in long hours to prepare the campus for the storm, who stayed on campus to monitor and respond to reports of flooded buildings and fallen trees, who transformed a conference center into a “mega shelter” for evacuees, who are volunteering their time and donating money and supplies to help our less fortunate neighbors recover from their region’s second major hurricane in the past two years.

“I want to take this opportunity to say thank you to everyone on campus who helped us before, during and after the storm. I am especially grateful to our staff who worked 24/7 to care for students still here, and to keep facilities running and walkways clear of debris,” Chancellor Carol L. Folt wrote in a campus email after the storm. “I also thank the team who worked in the Emergency Operations Center who monitored the storm and provided regular updates to the community. In addition, I am very appreciative of those who transformed the Friday Center to serve as a shelter for 500 North Carolinians in less than 24 hours and to numerous others who mobilized efforts to collect donations for people in need.”

Carolina’s Rick Luettich is an expert on storm surge and is quoted in many media outlets every year during hurricane season. This year was no different—except that Luettich’s Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City was in the path of Hurricane Florence.  “This storm has a lot of things that are unusual about it,” he told the international journal Nature in a Sept. 13 interview as Hurricane Florence approached the North Carolina coast. “First off, it formed at a fairly high latitude. And the storm has become much more erratic and much slower than past storms. As a result, the impact zone has broadened considerably. We could be looking at a storm that comes to the coast and then stalls, very much like Harvey did.” As usual, Luettich’s prediction was exactly right. published the following story about Luettich and his research in June, just as this year’s hurricane season began. 

Eying the hurricanes

When Rick Luettich first arrived at Carolina 25 years ago, he was struck by how irregular and complex water behavior was along the coastline.

Models that predicted movements of ocean waters were suited only for areas in the middle of the ocean and not where they were most needed—where people live.

That’s why researchers at Carolina have spent two decades developing a software package called ADCIRC, which predicts how the ocean waters will move and how high they will get. ADCIRC is now a leading tool for forecasting storm surge and coastal flooding during hurricanes.

“It makes an area safer to live in,” said Luettich, director of the Institute of Marine Sciences. “It allows people to make decisions in advance of storms, about how they should react to events as they come. So really we’ve been able to translate our research and knowledge into things that have a huge impact on society.”

Computing power

Today, ADCIRC is used by academics for research, engineers to design levee systems and the National Weather Service and NC Emergency Management to forecast flooding and determine the best course of action for residents on the coast.

To provide users with the potentially life-saving information, the program utilizes a combination of creative applications of basic physics principles and a lot of computing power. ADCIRC has grown from running on mainframes to running on state-of-the-art supercomputers to produce that information quickly.

“What supercomputers allow us to do is to tackle these problems at a scale we never imagined,” Luettich said. “We can go from an ocean scale of hundreds of kilometers down to a street scale of tens of meters and resolve everything in between.”

The development of ADCIRC has been the result of collaboration across disciplines and organizations with input from the Institute of Marine Sciences, department of marine sciences, the Renaissance Computing Institute and the DHS Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence.

Brian Blanton, an oceanographer and senior research scientist at RENCI, worked closely with Luettich to push ADCIRC forward in the computer science world.

“ADCIRC is a piece of software—it’s a Fortran code,” Blanton said. “However, there’s a lot of computer science in that Fortran code. There’s a lot of oceanography and earth sciences that are in that code. So, even at that level, different communities and threads of thought have to come together to be cast in a piece of software.

“UNC is one of those places where a lot of these [different areas of] expertise come together.”

– Aaron Moger, University Communications


Children especially enjoyed the visit by FRANKLIN and handler Ray Rodriguez of UNC Police.

At the height of Hurricane Florence, when many emergency shelters in the hardest hit areas lost power and had to close, the University helped the state’s Emergency Management team and the American Red Cross turn the Friday Center into a “mega shelter” for Hurricane Florence evacuees.

“It is a privilege to come together, welcome our neighbors across the state and help however we can,” said Chancellor Carol L. Folt on announcing the shelter. “We are grateful to the thousands of emergency management officials and others who have been responding during the storm, and for our own University staff, including those at the Friday Center, who will open its doors to North Carolinians in their time of need.”

The shelter opened on Sept. 22, with 500 beds, all of which were occupied a few days later. Only about half that number remained a week later, said the center’s interim director, Jessica Brinker said. Most people had left, not to return to their homes, but to re-opened shelters closer to home. 

“It feels like things are winding down,” Brinker said. But since no date has been set to close the shelter, the Friday Center has cleared its calendar of all events through Sept. 30.

Although this was the first time the center had been used in this way, the transition was swift and complete. The American Red Cross took the lead, bringing in a director from Alabama and a nursing staff from the Mississippi Health Coalition.

The setup included one National Guard cargo trailer with showers and another that included washers and dryers; an air-conditioned trailer for the evacuee pet dogs, cats and even a parrot; and a nurse’s station to handle medical problems and prescription drug needs. And to keep evacuees occupied, the center’s media services team showed a series of family-friendly movies in the Grummon Auditorium. 

Among the evacuees was a group of Congolese refugees who had been staying in New Bern, some of whom only spoke Swahili. When the center put out the call for Swahili speakers to serve as translators, teaching assistant Mohamed Yusuf Mwamzandi answered.

A long list of VIPs came to visit: Gov. Roy Cooper, Attorney Gen. Josh Stein, UNC President Margaret Spellings, Folt, the Rameses mascot and cheerleaders and the men’s basketball team. But the favorite visitor was probably FRANKLIN, a chocolate Labrador retriever and the crisis response assistance animal at UNC Police. He and handler patrol officer Ray Rodriguez were there to support the evacuees in this stressful time.

The center was also overwhelmed by people wanting to volunteer or donate items. “We’re not trained to handle that,” Brinker said. Instead she directs those who want to help to the Carolina Center for Public Service website,


This fallen oak at Parker Residence Hall was one of many trees taken down by wind and rain from Hurricane Florence.

The problem with sandbags is that they are a do-it-yourself project. You can order the bags and you can order the sand, but you have to put the sand in the bags yourself. And when it looked like Hurricane Florence would make a direct hit, Facilities Services employees filled 4,000 sandbags.

That’s a lot of sand. To be precise, “90 tons of sand, 180,000 pounds, 12 dump truck loads,” said Steve Gooch, director of grounds services.

Then those sandbags had to be placed all over campus, wherever there was potential for flooding or water damage. How did they know where to put the sandbags? Todd Going, interim director of building services, had gone back through his department’s records, looking for buildings that had flooded in the past three years. 

“Our theme was to prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” Going said. “And one of the better scenarios, for us, came to pass.”

At the University, classes were cancelled, and students were urged to go home and non-mandatory employees were urged to take leave. Only mandatory employees—many of them in Facilities Services—were required to report to work. Some even stayed overnight.

“Our people answered the call,” Gooch said. “I can’t say enough about them.” Some of them have no power, their kids are out of school, there’s a tree on their house, but they still came to work.” 

Several trees fell on campus and had to be removed and sidewalks had to be cleared of fallen limbs and branches. The housekeeping teams not only performed their regular
duties, but also provided housekeeping services for 500 evacuees occupying a shelter set up at the Friday Center. 

And all those sandbags had to be picked up.

Facilities Services employees were busy when many employees were at home. “They don’t really do it for the money,” Going said. “They are passionate about the University. Facilities cares about UNC.”


On Sept. 18, 15 employees from building services, grounds services and housekeeping services posed for this quick photo before heading out to help with recovery and cleanup efforts at UNC Pembroke in Robeson County, which was hit hard by Hurricane Florence. The volunteers arrived within 24 hours of getting the call for help and worked through Sept. 21, when they returned to Chapel Hill. The 15 facilities services employees are Myo Tun, Lay Blade and Eh Moo of housekeeping services; Keith Jeremiah, James Aiken, Todd Hartselle, Cody Mazerek and Robert Bradley of grounds services; and Bob Mazurek, Josh Pates, William Watts, Ken Boycher, Mike Bishop, Russell Parks and Santiago Peredes of building services. Employees from energy services and environment, health and safety have also been dispatched to help at UNC Pembroke and UNC Wilmington.


Among the Hurricane Florence evacuees who took shelter at the Friday Center was a group who spoke only Swahili. When the call for a Swahili translator went out, teaching assistant professor Mohamed Mwamzandi in the African, African American and diaspora studies department answered it. This photo shows Mwamzandi, far right, in action Sept. 16 as he translates the words of Bulasi Kyungu, a Swahili-speaking evacuee (left), into English for Gov. Roy Cooper (center).


Donate money: The North Carolina Disaster Relief Fund, UNC Disaster Relief Fund,, click on Carolina Center for Public Service icon.

Donate supplies: Do not donate used items, especially clothes; get something new from this list,  ccps.unc.

Volunteer: Do not self-deploy. Register at the following websites and wait to be asked to help. North Carolina state government volunteer website,  

Most-up-to-date information: Carolina Center for Public Service,



Employees may receive up to 120 hours of Community Service Leave (prorated for part-time employees) in any 12-month period for participation in disaster recovery and/or emergency volunteer services (see leave policy details at

Employees eligible for CSL are SHRA permanent employees (including probationary, trainee or time-limited) scheduled for 20+ hours weekly, EHRA permanent non-faculty and EHRA faculty who earn leave.