Iselle brings out the very best in UH Hilo staff

UH Hilo staff show quick thinking and abundant compassion for visiting students as Hurricane Iselle headed toward Hawai‘i Island

By Chancellor Don Straney

NOAA’s GOES-West satellite captured this image of a very active Eastern and Central Pacific, hosting three tropical cyclones (from left to right) Genevieve, Iselle and Julio, on Aug. 4, 2014. Image Credit: NASA/NOAA GOES Project

At universities we often talk about faculty’s role in student education. But staff have equal input in creating an environment where students can learn. The response to Hurricane Iselle is a perfect example of this.

The hurricane was a growing concern as we entered the week of August 4. Among other activities on campus, the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo was hosting a group of visiting students from across the Pacific who were here to present their research as part the Islands of Opportunity Alliance (IOA).

IOA is an initiative of the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation Program, funded by the National Science Foundation to increase the number of minority students graduating with four-year degrees in STEM disciplines. UH Hilo serves as the lead institution in the 18-member alliance.

There were 32 participants for the two-day conference. Most were undergraduates and their advisors from around the state, Palau, and Guam. They began to arrive in Hilo on Saturday, Aug. 2, as Hurricane Iselle moved across the Pacific.

Staff was constantly assessing the situation and employing the appropriate actions to ensure student, staff, and faculty safety and comfort. As one staff member explained after the storm, there was an emotional intensity to the experience, and understandably the students and their families needed reassurance that they were safe and that the appropriate plans were being carried out to maintain their safety and well-being.

The students held their presentations on Monday and Tuesday as the hurricane got stronger and nearer. UH Hilo staff made arrangements to support conference participants who wanted to fly home early to secure their families and property. The conference still continued for those who were here—for example, the group took a field trip up to Maunakea Wednesday morning.

As it became clear that Iselle was going to make landfall, staff made sure the group was safe, and felt safe, and that needs were met such as food and lodging. That included putting them in a hotel, and on Thursday before Iselle hit, evacuating them to a safer location because the hotel was on the coast, and then checking them back in after the storm. Staff was in constant contact with them before, during, and after the storm.

Though the conference was shortened and participants weren’t able to take part in every planned activity, everyone was able to present their research. Staff made sure that in addition to ensuring their safety, there were ample opportunities for strong student networking among conference participants, meeting an important goal of the program.

Throughout UH Hilo, our staff are creating an environment on campus where students can learn—even while responding to a hurricane. The Islands of Opportunity program focuses on engaging students in science and research to become the next STEM leaders in the region. Though not the intention, the students experienced the first historical direct hit by a hurricane that is thought by many to be an indication of changing climate conditions in the Pacific, reminding us all that their future studies and careers are important to our island future and success.

Many thanks to faculty and staff who helped students during Iselle. Our hearts go out to all on our island who were impacted by the storm and we wish them a speedy recovery.


Don Straney

Originally published in the Chamber Connection, the newsletter of the Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce