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Category Five

Category Five

By Matt Morgan

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Hurricane Irma was the worst storm to hit the continental United States since Katrina. Kelsey Rondini ’16 studied public health, and it’s her job to track diseases. Now it was time to help people in crisis.

Kelsey Rondini ’16 surveyed her apartment to decide what would come with her and what had to stay. Her electronics were already triple-wrapped in Saran wrap and dropped in garbage bags; she hoped—perhaps naively—it might keep them safe in the flooding of a Category 5 storm.

What was left was a collection of trinkets and memories that would likely not survive the storm. Rondini is a calm person—especially for her age. But she couldn’t keep her mind from jumping to the what-ifs. What if a tree fell on her car? What if her apartment was destroyed? What if all her memories were washed away in a flood? This was her first hurricane. She didn’t quite know what to expect. Her mother assured her those were just things and replaceable. As long as she was OK, that’s all that mattered.

Rondini realized that anything she left behind might not be there when she returned. She asked herself: “What’s so important that I would be devastated if it was gone?”

Instinctively, she scooped up a couple pictures, some important documents—passport, birth certificate, Social Security card—and her laptop. She hopped in her car and headed to a shelter—to work.

In Florida, you want to be on the west side of the eye of a storm. And up until Friday, September 8, Rondini had been. After graduating from SCU, she moved to Tampa Bay for a job as a public health advisor for the Florida Department of Health in Polk County. It’s part of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Health Associate Program. Hurricane Irma was supposed to miss Tampa, but it drifted west Friday and was tracking toward the city.

During times of crisis, public health workers put the safety of others ahead of themselves. Rondini helped set up a specialty care clinic at the health department in Bartow, Florida, on Saturday. Within a couple hours, cots were lined up in rooms and hallways to support 400 special-needs patients from the community who needed electricity to power oxygen tanks or keep insulin refrigerated.

Rondini walked the halls to distribute food and help people use the restroom, when needed. People were tired. Many had been up for days. The air conditioning worked, but lights in some areas of the shelter couldn’t be turned off, making sleep difficult. Rondini did what she could—sometimes that meant coffee. At one point she brewed 250 cups over a six-hour period. Other times, she just listened.

Public health workers constructed makeshift shutters to go over the sliding doors, keeping the storm out. Of course, once the shutters were closed at 8 p.m. on Sunday, no one could leave until morning. “That exact moment was the moment when we knew we’re closed, we’re hunkering down and waiting for this hurricane to hit,” Rondini says.

BLUE SKIES, YELLOW MENU

After the storm, Rondini and her co-workers opened the shutters to reveal the damage. She expected to see flooding, like she’d seen in Houston, but didn’t. Fortunately, the storm that had reached wind speeds of 185 mph elsewhere had veered east and largely spared Tampa. Trees were down, debris was everywhere, but buildings remained.

The shelter doors were open, but Rondini continued working as people remained in the shelter. She recalls one couple in their 60s who couldn’t believe she was still around when her shift hit the 50-hour mark.

When she got the go-ahead to return home, Rondini drove to her apartment to find no damage. She was thankful, and wiser. When she was forced to choose what was important, she realized how much she could do without.

That night, she and her roommate ate at Waffle House, where she learned about the Waffle House Index for gauging the severity of a natural disaster. Green means Waffle House is serving a full menu. Yellow—open but with a special menu. Red means the Waffle House is closed. But Waffle House rarely closes. The Waffle House in Tampa was on yellow. Rondini had the All-Star breakfast: eggs, sausage, toast, a waffle, hash browns, and a sweet tea. The restaurant was packed. Rondini and her roommate sat at the bar, enjoying semi-air-conditioned air. Phones were charged for the first time in days. Life was starting to feel normal.

The weeks following a natural disaster are when work ramps up for the Department of Public Health. Rondini works in the reportable disease unit, tracking trends in diseases. Post-Irma, there were about 55 cases of carbon monoxide poisoning exposure in her area. Part of her job is to find out why. “Unfortunately, a lot of it was improper use of a generator,” Rondini says. “Having it too close to the house.” From there, Rondini helps decide if her group can put together a PR campaign or work with generator manufacturers to make sure the warnings are clearly displayed.

Florida itself is largely back to normal. A month after Irma, Rondini traveled to Key West. She was relieved that the damage wasn’t worse.

Months later, Rondini still finds the experience surreal. She knows she’s in the right field. She has gained an appreciation for how vital community is to surviving natural disasters—from volunteers to cleanup crews. Everyone is in it together. “This was a side of public health I hadn’t seen in action,” she says, “but I am so glad I had my team and am quite proud of the work we have done.”

MATT MORGAN is the associate editor of this magazine.

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