Hurricane Matthew at UCF: 30 Hours in a Campus Ride-Out Shelter

At 12:48 p.m. on Wednesday, October 5, UCF students got simultaneously wonderful and terrible news:


On the one hand, students escaped 2.5 days of class and received another 5 days to procrastinate on homework and exams. On the other hand, a ferocious hurricane that left 900 dead in Haiti was about to aggressively rearrange eastern Florida. Yikes.

As an out of state student from Pennsylvania, where we worry about blizzards instead of hurricanes, I immediately began doing research in preparation. Advice seemed to range from “Buy every Twinkie and candle that Walmart has, then tell your loved ones goodbye” to “Meh, just refill the liquor cabinet.”

UCF organized a mandatory evacuation of most residence halls on campus, giving students until 7pm on Thursday to leave their dorm. Those who couldn’t go home – or whose home was about to be in even worse shape – would move into one of the ride-out locations on campus. For the duration of Hurricane Matthew, these students would live in either Classroom Building 1, Nicholson School of Communication, or the Recreation and Wellness Center. Residents were responsible for bringing their own bedding, food, water, and entertainment for potentially 72 hours of lockdown. 


As a Resident Assistant (RA) in the Libra Community, I prepared to staff the ride-out shelter in Classroom Building 1. Time to be a calm, cool, and collected role model in a situation I had no experience with. Sure. Starting Wednesday evening, UCF students started to prep their room for the storm and head off campus – either back home or to their favorite off-campus hurricane party destination.

Attempting to follow last week’s Her Campus Hurricane Guide, I came up with the very creative idea of making a panicked run to Publix, attempting to pick up water and snacks. Unfortunately, all 63,000 students at UCF had similar ideas, and Snapchat was filled with pictures of empty shelves and checkout lines that wrapped around the store.

By Thursday morning, the majority of students evacuated. Those remaining on campus packed up their bedding and snacks, preparing to head to the ride out shelter. Similarly, I closed my blinds, laid towels along the windowsill, unplugged electronics, and moved my furniture away from the windows. I packed up my car and headed to the parking garage.

Confession: I pulled into the parking garage and instinctively felt a huge rush of adrenaline because there were SO MANY FIRST FLOOR PARKING SPOTS. But then the logic kicked in and I realized that was a Terrible-Horrible-No-Good-Very-Bad Idea, so I parked on the ramp between floors two and three like the seasoned hurricane veteran I was pretending to be.

I moved my hurricane survival kit (my entire bed-set, Cards Against Humanity, and enough food and water to last five months, probably) into Classroom Building 1 and began to check residents into the specific interior classrooms where they would be sleeping and sheltering during the worst of the storm.

A team of RAs went back to the residence halls to inspect every room and ensure all residents had evacuated. By 7 p.m., it was official – the ride-out had begun. No residents who had moved into the shelter were permitted to leave until we received the all-clear from administration.

The following 30 hours passed like a blur. Around 100 residents and 50 RAs (in addition to pro-staff, members of Facilities Operations, and a University Police Officer) hunkered down and prepared to ride out the storm. For the next several hours, we watched Zootopia, Mean Girls, both Scooby Doo movies, Holes, Kronk’s New Groove, and other wonderful childhood films that helped us ignore the deadly storm hurtling our way. UCF’s Counseling and Psychological Services donated a stress-relief kit for students to pass the time, which included adult color pages, stress balls, and balloons.

A few dedicated shelterers worked on homework or studied, but most passed the time with Netflix or napping. At midnight on Thursday, a noisy and largely unpopular game of Capture the Flag got started, and someone made the questionable decision to bring a soccer ball, but otherwise the evening passed with few disruptions.  At 2 a.m., staff sent students back to their assigned classrooms to remain in lockdown until the worst of the storm passed. And then, I promptly proceeded to sleep straight through my first hurricane. Sigh.

At 11 a.m., the storm was well past UCF and students were permitted to leave the classroom and roam around the shelter – we just highly suggested they stay away from windows. Looking out at campus, the storm had scattered tree debris everywhere and broken off a few branches, but no buildings appeared to be damaged. According to a Facilities Operations member, we lost power for several minutes overnight but it quickly came back. Hurricane Matthew had shifted paths slightly and weakened to a Category 3, sparing Orlando from its predicted destruction.

Over the next six hours, damage assessment teams inspected campus buildings and prepared to return students to their residence halls. At 5:00 p.m., we received the all-clear. No residence halls were significantly damaged and students could return to their rooms. Moving with impressive determination and speed, residents repacked their belongings and got the heck out of CB1 by basically 5:02 p.m.

And thus, my first hurricane concluded. We escaped with barely losing power, always having functional plumbing, and only one night of sleeping on concrete classroom floors with strangers. However, the administration’s response to Hurricane Matthew prepared for much, much worse, and I am very grateful for the UCF leaders that take threats to our campus and student population seriously.  

Some lessons-learned during my first hurricane experience: don’t believe the overdramatic news anchors who insist everyone will die, bring plenty of junk food for stress eating, and sleeping on classroom floors is definitely an avoid-if-possible situation.


Photo credit: Thumbnail, Photo 1, 2