Florida’s Governor Closes Public Colleges as Irma Bears Down on Peninsula

September 07, 2017

NASA/NOAA GOES Project/AP Images
A satellite image on Wednesday shows Hurricane Irma on track to slam Florida. Gov. Rick Scott ordered public colleges and schools closed through Monday to give "local and state emergency officials the flexibility necessary to support shelter and emergency response efforts."

Last updated (9/7/2017, 9:55 p.m.) with the announcement that Gov. Rick Scott had ordered all Florida public colleges closed through Monday.

Gov. Rick Scott of Florida announced Thursday evening that he was ordering all state universities and colleges, along with public schools and other government offices, to close, effective Friday, as the state braces for the arrival of Hurricane Irma.

Multiple major colleges on the peninsula and in eastern Florida had already made the decision to close before Gov. Scott issued his order. Other institutions in the western parts of the state said earlier Thursday they were holding off on any decision to close down, as major forecasts at that time appeared to show Irma bearing east. Mr. Scott said closing public facilities through Monday would give "local and state emergency officials the flexibility necessary to support shelter and emergency response efforts.”

By Tuesday morning, Miami Dade College had decided to shut down operations and call off classes on Thursday and Friday at its eight Miami-area campuses. Juan Mendieta, a spokesman, said administrators began tracking the storm and discussing how to prepare last week when Irma was forming over the Atlantic Ocean, far from the Florida coast.

"Last week, we began our campus hurricane preparations, moving debris and items that could fly away," Mr. Mendieta said on Wednesday. "By the weekend we were hosting conference calls between the leadership and campus personnel, and we made the decision early yesterday to suspend all operations from Thursday, September 7, to Sunday, September 10."

The preparation for Hurricane Irma began as Hurricane Harvey was still dominating the news. "Those images from Harvey and the devastation are so fresh on minds that people have a heightened level of concern," Mr. Mendieta said. "Had Harvey not taken place, there may have been some complacency within our community, but with Harvey happening just a week ago, I think people are on a heightened state of alert."

With the hurricane having already battered several Caribbean islands, Florida residents are being warned to take the storm’s threat seriously. Governor Scott had already declared a state of emergency Thursday for the entire state in preparation for a storm that he expects to be "bigger, faster, and stronger" than Hurricane Andrew, which devastated South Florida in 1992.

Several other universities had already closed ahead of the governor's announcement: Florida International University, with two major campuses in the Miami area; the University of South Florida system, with three campuses in the Tampa Bay area; and Stetson University, a private institution with four locations across the peninsula.

Wait and See

Other colleges on the west side of the Florida peninsula had not made a call on cancellations as of Thursday afternoon but said they were watching the weather situation closely. 

In Tallahassee, Florida State University’s emergency-operations team and executive-leadership team were monitoring the storm on Thursday afternoon, with no plans to close campus at that time.

The University of West Florida, in Pensacola, wasn’t in the direct path of Irma as projected on Thursday afternoon, but officials there were nevertheless taking the threat seriously. They've been through hurricanes before. 

Betsy Bowers, interim vice president for finance and administration and a longtime West Florida staffer, recalled the university's experience with Hurricane Ivan in 2004. By her own recollection, 82 buildings on campus were damaged in that storm, and she worked as part of the team that had to secure funding for repairs.

Ms. Bowers was thankful for the compassion that other higher-education professionals showed her institution after that storm. She said the University of West Florida stands at the ready for Hurricane Irma, willing to help affected colleges in any way possible.

"We had colleagues come visit us after Ivan even from other states," she said, "and our university is ready to roll up our sleeves and help wherever we can post-storm with our colleagues."