It was a sunny South Florida morning but inside the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) for Miami-Dade County, in Doral, all everybody talked about was rain, devastating winds and storms.
A group of 40 sixth-graders from West Miami Middle School dashed between desks, coordinating emergency efforts during a simulation of what would happen during a category 4 hurricane.
“The hurricane will be affecting Miami-Dade County in 36 hours,” said student Hazel Perez, charged with being a meteorologist during the simulation. “A few thunderstorms will begin to move along our coast in 24 hours.”
The StormZone program has been bringing South Florida students into the emergency operation center for 12 years for simulation exercises in which they face the same obstacles Miami-Dade County authorities could face before, during and after similar a hurricane.
“These students will be faced with overturned tanker trucks, there will be fires, they’ll be issues dealing with people trying to leave,” said Erik Salna, a meteorologist under Florida International University’s Hurricane Research Center and associate director of the Extreme Events Institute.
After filing into the room, a little after 9 a.m. on a Monday morning, the middle schoolers wiped sleep from their eyes and pulled on oversized t-shirts reading ‘Weather Rangers.’
Salna says he wants these students to feel like the clock is ticking and they have only hours to prepare before the hurricane makes landfall.
“It really gives them another opportunity to think about different career fields, and maybe they can have a job one day where they can help their community during a natural hazard,” Salna said.
He said this simulation for students is essential, especially in the wake of Hurricane Michael devastating the Florida Panhandle. He reminded the participants:
“After the hurricane think of the damage -- there will be problems in the nursing home, where people will be evacuated out and brought to a safer place. And think of problems in hurricane shelters, and what happens in those facilities.”
In his head, sixth grader Joshua Rauser said he felt like he was actually on an emergency transportation team. Alert and constantly turning his hands, Rauser led his group and made the decision to send out helicopters after accidents blocked a main highway.
“For transportation, we have eight helicopters,” Rauser said. “Well, since there’s traffic because of the oil spill, we can’t use trucks or vans, so instead we’re going to use our helicopters to transport the people.”
Dr. Christine Todd, curriculum development and training educator at Miami-Dade County Public Schools, helped coordinate StormZone for these students.
“This is the best part about school,” she said. “Just listening to their conversations and ideas, they’re such brilliant kids and they have very good ideas.”
She said she sees a few future meteorologists, and this is an essential activity for students who live in an area vulnerable to hurricanes.