(TNS) — Just days after Hurricane Irma hit the Florida Keys, John Summerlot was there helping to coordinate relief efforts. At its peak, the center he was managing distributed supplies to 13,000 people a day.
"That's a lot to move into a town with one road in and one road out," he said.
Lessons learned from that experience will help Indiana University and the rest of the state handle their own large-scale disasters.
Summerlot is one of four IU emergency management experts who left for Florida on Sept. 11. They were driving back to Indiana earlier this week.
The IU employees are part of an incident management assistance team that operates under the Indiana Department of Homeland Security. Their primary role is to respond to disasters within Indiana, but when other states experience catastrophic events, they travel. In this case, 16 incident management teams from different states were sent to Florida.
Summerlot is director of veterans support services for IU's Bloomington campus. He also teaches emergency management at the IU School of Public Health and was previously a member of IU's emergency management and continuity staff.
Other IU employees who traveled to Florida include Carlos Garcia and Ryan Chandler, director and assistant director of emergency management and continuity at IU-Purdue University Indianapolis. Diane Mack, university director of emergency management and continuity, was also part of the group.
"We were immediately put to work at the Florida state operations center," she said.
Mack explained Florida officials were familiar with the IU group because they worked in the state last year during Hurricane Matthew.
Most of the IU team stayed at the operations center in Tallahassee, but after about a day and a half, it became clear more help was needed in the Keys. Summerlot split off, and found a dire situation. Homes were completely destroyed and debris was everywhere. Cleaning up a mess like that would have been a monumental task under the best of circumstances, but in some parts of the Keys, water and electricity services were out for nearly a week.
"You had a couple thousand people that stayed who are now living in 100-plus-degree heat with no access to water or electricity for air conditioning," he said.
That's why deliveries of food, water and ice were so important. Summerlot helped determine what to order and when it should arrive. He wanted to make sure there was enough, but if too much came, there wasn't much space to store it.
It was a nearly constant job. Summerlot worked up to 15 hours a day. What little sleep he got was on a cot inside a mobile command center.
After about a week in the Keys, Summerlot joined the rest of the IU team in Immokalee, an unincorporated area about 35 miles southeast of Fort Myers. More than 40 percent of Immokalee residents live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
"They were already suffering challenges," Mack said.
While recovery will take longer in rural, low-income areas such as Immokalee, larger urban centers were beginning to look more normal when the team started to make its way home, Summerlot said.
Overall, the trip helped him understand what would be needed in the event of a disaster at IU. The 13,000 people served at the distribution center in the Keys is a figure similar to the on-campus population in Bloomington.
"I kept thinking what we would need to do in Bloomington, to provide food and water to students in the residence halls," he said.
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