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Pirate Strong: Resilience & Compassion in the Aftermath of Hurricane Matthew

young women and men in fraternity shirts stand with boxes in front of a poster

On October 7, Hurricane Matthew slammed Chatham County, but Armstrong’s community banded together, responding to the crisis with preparedness, resilience and compassion.

“The human impact from Hurricane Matthew has been tremendous,” said Armstrong President Linda M. Bleicken, following the area’s most destructive storm in more than a century. “Many of us, myself included, have a new appreciation for things we may have previously taken for granted, like having a roof over our heads, the ability to take a hot shower and having electricity on demand.”

In late September, as Matthew, then a Category 4 hurricane, churned in the Atlantic, promising catastrophic damage to the coasts of Haiti, Cuba and Jamaica, Armstrong Facilities Director Katie Twining and her team began campus storm preparations. Crews removed debris from rooftops, cleared storm drains, trimmed potentially hazardous tree branches, checked building systems and generators, safeguarded equipment and loose items and verified emergency contact information for staff.  

As Matthew’s approach was imminent along Georgia’s coastline, Armstrong called for a complete campus closing by 9 a.m. on October 6, prompting a flurry of action from staff, faculty and students. Housing and Residential Life Director Nick Shrader encouraged students who live on campus to go home, or find an alternate location. However, a dozen housing residents didn’t have anywhere to go.

Fortunately, Armstrong’s Hurricane Plan included a special contract with Kelly Tours to provide charter bus transportation, meals and lodging for displaced residential students. This option was perfect for students like Tishell Grant, a Bahamian native in her third year of Health Administration studies, who rode the bus to safety in Mobile, Alabama.

“Being an international student with no transportation and low on funds I quickly replied to the Housing Department’s email and reserved a spot,” said Grant. “We left for Alabama and stayed at a hotel with meals provided. It was actually a great experience. It felt like a mini-vacation. I was very grateful to the housing staff for going out of their way to make sure that students in need were safe.” 

The same day that Housing shuttled students to Alabama, Amanda Lemus, a biology major who will graduate in the spring, evacuated to a church in Warner Robbins with her family. Moved by the kindness of the congregation, she wanted to help others once the storm subsided. Lemus had previously participated with America’s Second Harvest of Coastal Georgia and decided to revisit the nonprofit to see how she could further assist. One of many volunteers on site, Lemus was a participant in the weeklong assembly of more than 7,000 boxes full of non-perishable items, such as canned vegetables, tomato juice and instant mashed potatoes. The food staples were delivered to families in Chatham County and surrounding areas.

“This experience was meaningful because it reflected the importance of community support during difficult times,” she said. “Everyone worked toward the same goal of providing hurricane relief for so many in need. It was amazing to see how much can be achieved when people join together to show kindness in our community.”

Similarly, DeVon Nelson, a second year Armstrong nursing student and member of the National Guard, deployed to Brunswick, Ga., with his unit the day following the storm, and remained there for nearly a week.

“It was pretty bad,” he noted. “There were downed trees and flooding. We helped the police with traffic control and putting the curfew into place, among other things.”

Based on his experience during Hurricane Matthew, Nelson has decided to pursue a career as a police officer. “It made me want to become a cop,” he said. “I loved the feeling of helping people.”

Armstrong’s Police Department bravely rode out the storm to ensure the security of our campus and provide initial damage assessment, explained Katie Twining. 

Given the magnitude of debris, which included more than 100 uprooted trees, Armstrong’s Facilities Department and custodial staff partnered with local disaster restoration team, Belfor Restoration, to expedite clean up efforts. The goal was to re-open campus on Friday, October 14 and to resume classes on Monday, October 17. Members of the University Police Department and the clean up crew – many of whom did not have power or water in their own homes  – worked around the clock, surveying damage, building-by-building, room-by-room, and restored areas as needed, to meet the deadline. The food service crew also diligently cleaned kitchen areas and restocked food supplies, so Armstrong could provide meals for returning students.

“Thankfully, our department had developed a solid Hurricane Plan, which allowed us to be strategic,” noted Twining. “We also have a tremendous staff of hardworking and dedicated employees who worked tirelessly to get campus back up and running.”

Rhonda Ruesch

“After working in the medical field for top physicians for many years, the general consensus was always that the Armstrong Nursing students were held in the highest regard.”

Rhonda Ruesch
Class of 2019
Milwaukee, Wisconsin