Fast Action Aids Disaster Recovery

Photo: Dr. John Holdnak has plans to write a book about his experiences as a college president dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Michael in 2018. Already, he has contributed to a guide on disaster response.

By Steve Bornhoft

Dr.  John Holdnak, the vice president of operations and innovation at TechFarms, figures prominently as a source and contributor in a book that details how three colleges recovered from catastrophic events: a flood, a hurricane and a mass shooting.

Holdnak was the president of Gulf Coast State College (GCSC) in his hometown of Panama City, Florida, when it was visited by Hurricane Michael, a Category 5 hurricane that made landfall at Mexico Beach, Tyndall Air Force Base and Panama City on Oct. 10, 2018.

Packing 160 mph winds when it came ashore, Michael became one of only four Cat 5 hurricanes to hit the United States since 1900 and the third most powerful. Holdnak rode out the storm in an emergency shelter. When he emerged after the storm passed, he was confronted by a disaster so vast that it caused him to weep. It would later be determined that GCSC’s main campus had sustained more than $58 million in damage.

In Overcoming Disaster: What Colleges Learned from Catastrophe to Recovery, Dr. Katherine Persson describes her experience as president of Lone Star College-Kingwood when it was overtaken by floodwaters resulting from Hurricane Harvey in August 2017. The flooding was so bad that the school temporarily adopted a new slogan: “A River Ran Through It.”

Persson also addresses the aftermath of an October 2015 shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon in which 10 people including the gunman died.

The book is more than just a recounting of events. It is built to serve as a guide to help campus leaders prepare for disasters before they occur and know what to expect when they do.

Instructive in that way is a letter, contained in the book, that Holdnak sent to college presidents whose campuses were in the path of Hurricane Laura, as it approached Cameron, Louisiana. The storm made landfall as a Cat 4 hurricane on Aug. 27, 2020.

Holdnak impressed upon his fellow presidents the real differences between Cat 4 and Cat 5 hurricanes and lesser storms.

“When you hit Category 4 and higher, there are no weak sides of the storm and anywhere the eyewall hits will suffer severe destruction,” he wrote. “Even though we are right on the coast, the winds that did most of the damage (to GCSC) came out of the north, around the back side of the storm — unexpected and unrelenting. Hundred-year-old buildings that “always survive the storms” will be gone” in a Cat 4 or 5.

Holdnak, writing from personal experience and lessons shared by the president of a college battered by Hurricane Katrina, also stressed the need for colleges to resume operations as soon as possible following a big blow.

“Get your college reopened and classes restarted as soon as possible,” he advised. “Even if it is still torn up! … Humans have to have some point of stability in their lives to anchor to and begin to rebuild everything else. Your students and employees are going to need an anchor point, and your reopening may be the only normal-ish thing going in a truly horrible time.”

Spurred by notice from the Veterans Administration that VA student benefits would be suspended if they weren’t back in class 28 days following the storm, GCSC resumed operations in 27.

“Some of our classrooms had no ceilings and many no walls, but we made it work — and our faculty were incredible,” Holdnak wrote.

The homes of approximately 30% of college employees and a similar percentage of students were either destroyed or so severely damaged as to have been made unlivable for months. Some homeless students and faculty, Holdback would recall six years later, camped out in cars and still made attending classes a priority. Some commuted daily from temporary housing located 50-100 miles from campus.

For the community at large, GCSC served as a source of information and a sliver of normalcy. While most cell phone, radio and television towers in the storm’s path were destroyed, the college’s 100,000-watt radio station survived and became the sole source of official news and information for the region.

For days after the storm, Florida Department of Transportation programmable highway signs carried a message directing people to WKGC for emergency information and the latest on road access and resources distribution.

Dr. John Holdnak earned his EdD from the University of West Florida with a major in curriculum and instruction and an emphasis in educational leadership. He earned a bachelor’s degree in leisure services and studies and a master’s degree in applied psychology from Florida State University. 

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