October 18, 2019
Oct. 17, 2019—More than 40 Hamilton Middle School eighth grade students participated in a hurricane simulation at the Harris County Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Management (HCOHSEM) on Oct. 9, challenging their leadership, collaboration and problem-solving skills inside the Emergency Operations Center (EOC).
The simulation was made possible through StormZone and the Weather Rangers program. The science and social studies education program exposes students to the effects of severe natural hazards, including hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires and extreme heat. Students assume the roles of government and support agency officials in an interactive exercise to recover from a major weather event.
The 43 Hamilton students’ scenario involved preparation and executing evacuation and rescue missions for “Hurricane Nicole,” named after Nicole Domingues, Hamilton science instructional specialist, who helped facilitate the simulation.
“You can talk about this and show pictures all you want, but it’s different when you’re in that room and you feel that feeling of urgency,” Domingues said. “The kids knew it was their job. It was their job to rescue the animals or it was their job to feed these people, and they had to do it with the other people.
“You can’t simulate that in a classroom.”
Hamilton was selected to participate through an existing relationship with Jennifer Suter, a HCOHSEM training and exercise supervisor. StormZone is based in Miami and wanted to expand, choosing Harris Country, which has encountered Hurricane Harvey and Tropical Storm Imelda in the last two years. Domingues and StormZone Executive Director Lucien Proby originally aimed for the spring, but scheduling and EOC availability pushed the exercise to October.
Students were selected based on their passion for science and leadership ability. They met four times before the simulation, beginning with an introduction.
Domingues explained each job and its responsibilities, and students were allowed to select individual roles based on need. Available agencies and roles included the county judge, OEM, transportation department, local fire-rescue department, American Red Cross, Salvation Army, National Guard, animal services, local media and U.S. Public Health Service. Each group had a leader to help in collaborating with other agencies during the exercise.
The simulation began with the first of four challenges, as students were asked to prepare for an oncoming hurricane while a major evacuation route was blocked. Other challenges included a fire at an evacuation shelter, damage from the hurricane making landfall and the zoo incurring major damage and missing animals.
“I enjoyed my role in this,” said Maddi Nguyen, who was among three media reporters. “I got to ask the different people a lot of questions and find out how they contributed to the event.
Assisting each group were HCOHSEM staff members and others specific to one agency.
“These kids are our future,” said Erik Salna, meteorologist for StormZone, who assisted a trio in the same role in tracking the hurricane and giving updates throughout the simulation. “The exercise was thinking about what is emergency management, what does it do and how does it serve the community before, during and after a storm?
“So you saw STEM education, communication skills, working together, problem solving. All of those that happen for real here in an EOC when a storm is coming our way.”
Each challenge was timed and each agency had varying resources, whether it be people, facilities and buildings or materials and equipment. Students moved across the EOC, finding other agencies to identify need and solve the challenge. Information was then relayed to the county judge and EOC’s emergency manager, who were charged with delivering the message to the public.
“I learned in my role as the judge that he or she has to trust his people and their information,” Ryan Woldfram said. “There are a lot of people that influence what the judge says and a lot of different faces behind the face.”
A press conference concluded the event, with the judge and emergency manager fielding questions from reporters.
“You are never too young to learn the importance of preparedness, especially in a community like ours where we experience weather and manmade events frequently,” said Mark Sloan, Harris County emergency management coordinator.