More than a week ago, Randell Barry began seeing indications that a powerful storm might affect Daytona Beach. He alerted colleagues at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University: Might need to move the planes.
In the days that followed, he and other faculty members in the meteorology department helped school officials plan for Hurricane Dorian, trying to gauge the storm’s path, strength and timing.
Like just about everyone else in Florida, Barry kept his eye on the storm, with all its unknowns. Like every university bracing in the hurricane’s path, Embry-Riddle faced a host of logistical challenges at its Daytona Beach campus. Administrators needed to ensure students and staff members were safe, that buildings were secure, that parents were informed.
And they wanted to get their fleet of 68 planes — some of which cost about $800,000 each — out of town.
“It’s pretty amazing to watch it,” Barry Butler, the school’s president, said Tuesday of the school’s formidable hurricane planning, honed over many years. Since 2017, the school has also asked students, including incoming freshmen, to have their own plan — to prepare in advance for the campus possibly having to evacuate. On Friday, the campus shut down.
Barry and other experts were consulting with campus safety officials, giving them estimated wind speeds in 12 hours, 24 hours and so on. High-speed winds are the biggest concern, Barry said, “but you want to get those aircraft out of our area before the outer rain bands of the storm start moving in.” That means the flight department needs a longer lead time than local emergency officials. It also brings a risk of moving the planes too early; if the storm’s path changes, the school could waste money on an unnecessary evacuation.
About 150 people worked on the planes’ departure, Butler said, including people brewing coffee and cooking food for the pilots. At 4:45 a.m. Saturday, the planes began to lift off, one after another, every three to four minutes.
The pilots flew to Alabama, part of a longtime agreement with Auburn University. On the radar, it looks like a railroad track from Daytona to Auburn, and on the ground, there’s extensive coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration.
Safety officials followed the playbook, locking things down. The 1,300 faculty and staff members had been given time to take care of things at home. With students from 50 states and 110 countries — including the Bahamas, where Dorian unleashed devastation — not everyone’s plan worked.
By Sunday morning, about 100 students were left on the Daytona Beach campus. School officials asked faculty and staff members to take students in; two moved in with Butler. That left about 30 students with nowhere to go. Five students volunteered to be shelter captains, helping others move into a local middle-school cafeteria Monday, buying flashlights and batteries, trying to reassure those scared about the storm.
Only one problem: The shelter couldn’t take one student’s dog, Jasper, without a crate.
School officials rushed to buy a crate. Jasper and the group moved in.
“We’re as prepared as we can be,” Butler said Tuesday night. “I’m watching the palm trees out back start to sway.”
At the shelter, students played soccer outside before the rains began, did homework and talked with local residents in the cafeteria after the storm hit. Josiah Bichler, a senior who volunteered to help rather than going home to Sarasota, was surprised at how happy the other people were to see Embry-Riddle students there. “That was definitely a neat experience.”
One thing they didn’t do much of: sleep.
“There was a lot of snoring,” Bichler said.
On Wednesday, school officials were working to ensure the campus would be safe for classes Monday. Dorian passed 85 miles out to sea, and damage seemed limited to landscaping. Dorms were expected to reopen Wednesday evening, but other buildings remained closed.
Barry has been working with university officials on storm plans for 15 years. It doesn’t get any easier, he said. Weather is just too uncertain.
On Thursday, they hope, they can fly those planes back. Storm’s over.