Isabelle Schmidt

(Rock Hill, S.C.) –- As Hurricane Florence swept through the Carolinas, the Winthrop University alert system, which notifies students and staff in a time of emergency, was tested.

Many other schools, including the University of South Carolina, canceled classes the week prior to the arrival of Florence, but at Winthrop classes were only canceled for two days on Sept. 14 and 17.

Days before the storm arrived, students and staff started receiving daily updates on the situation via email, text message and phone call.

University officials said it can be a challenge to know ahead of time how severe any weather-related event is going be, but Winthrop has protocols to help lead it through the process.

“There is a critical incident management team with representatives of many departments and offices across campus that convenes when a weather event like Hurricane Florence is expected or other incidents arise,” said Ellen Wilder-Byrd, associate vice president of communications and marketing.

She said the team is lead by Sheila Burkhalter, vice president for student affairs, and Justin Oates, vice president for finance and business affairs, who then make recommendations to President Dan Mahony.

Prior to the arrival of Florence, a state of emergency was declared in South Carolina days before the storm made landfall.

“A state of emergency is determined by the governor who issues an executive order. Winthrop officials meet with York County Emergency Management that works with other counties across the state under the S.C. Emergency Management division,” said Wilder-Byrd.

Whether it’s a hurricane, snowstorm or other emergency, Winthrop provides messages through the alert system, which originate from an email from Mahony. The president’s email, concerning the canceling of classes or closure of the campus, is considered an official statement from which all other messages are based.

“The email is the first document and then we have to look at things like character limit on the SMS system, how much details we want to give in a voice recording, but we work all of that off of the email draft,” said Wilder-Byrd.

The Winthrop alert system communicates with more than 6,700 contacts, including faculty, staff and students.

“Typically, the text messages have the highest success rates. The two messages through SMS on September 13 (canceling classes) reached 94 percent and 99 percent of contacts. The voice messages do not have as high of success rates because calls may not be answered (or) voice mail may not be set up,” said Wilder-Byrd.

Students said they were generally satisfied with the communication they received from the university regarding Florence.

“I think they have told me everything I need to know,” said Brady Black, a sophomore physical education major, prior to the storm’s arrival. “They communicate everyday by 2 p.m. and my RLC (residence life coordinator) in Phelps has emailed us with things to prepare.”

Casey Howell, a sophomore business administration major, said she received emails, text messages and phone calls regarding the storm, which she said kept her generally well informed.

However, some students said the communication could be improved.

Senior Renee Zilbermann-Adams, a biomedical research student, said she was not happy with the emails because they were repetitive and lacked details.

“They send out an email and a text message that repeats the same thing over and over again and send it when it’s too late. They need to get better at it,” she said.

Additionally, Howell said, Winthrop could have provided better information about what services would be available on campus as Florence passed through Rock Hill.

“Communication wise, for some things like dining, they can put it up more places, like in Digs (the DiGiorgio Campus Center), on the TVs to advertise that information,” said Howell.