Sep 11, 2018
Weather the Storm: Part 2
Erin Cernuda

Last week, Texas Southern University Director of Sports Medicine Dr. Erin Hassler shared how she made it through Hurricane Harvey last year. This week, Miami (Fla.) Sunset Senior High School Head Athletic Trainer Erin Cernuda describes her experiences with Hurricane Irma.

In South Florida, the fall sports season brings more than preparticipation physicals, football practices, and conditioning sessions. It’s also the heart of hurricane season, which athletic trainers in the region do their best to handle.

During the first two weeks of September 2017, we saw an especially brutal storm in Hurricane Irma. It was a Category 4 hurricane that covered the entire state of Florida at one point.

We had about a week’s notice to get ready for Irma. On Thursday, Sept. 7, government officials started to open shelters and mandate evacuations for coastal areas and flood zones. The full force of the hurricane was expected to hit on Sunday, Sept. 10.

As soon as I had a way to charge my phone, I [checked] in with my students and [made] sure they were safe. After a week, we got power back, and my focus switched more to school.

At Miami Sunset Senior High School, we enacted our hurricane closure procedures, which include securing outdoor equipment, unplugging electronics, and covering materials that should not get wet. All of our sports medicine supplies that are kept in an outside shed were brought into the main school building. Our school closed on Thursday and Friday, and we didn’t know when we would reopen.

A big part of my hurricane prep was making sure my students and athletes were ready. Before they left school on Wednesday, I spoke with my injured athletes and gave them specific instructions for continuing rehabilitation protocols at home. I printed handouts that explained rehab exercises and loaned them any necessary equipment, like bands and ankle weights.

Even though school was closed on Thursday and Friday, I stayed in touch with my students and athletes. Miami Sunset has an online communication app called “Remind 101,” and students used it to ask me questions about the hurricane.

For instance, one student asked how he could help his mom, who was worrying about the storm. We discussed some things he could do to assist her, such as helping with the emergency supply shopping, doing laundry (as water and electricity could go out during the storm), and babysitting his younger sister. I also reminded him, and all of my students, to be smart and safe and check in with me after the storm so I would know they were okay.

While I was preparing my students and athletes for Irma, I got ready myself. With every update to the storm’s path, my family and I discussed and re-discussed our plan. We boarded up our house; shopped for food, water, and basic essentials; and waited in long lines to fill our cars with gas.

Irma lasted for several days, with the worst of it hitting on Sunday. During the storm, the sounds of uprooted trees crashing into cars and buildings and transformers blowing shook my neighborhood. However, what scared me the most were the numerous tornadoes tearing through the county. We just hunkered down and hoped everything would be okay.

Once Irma passed, we met with neighbors, checked on everyone in our immediate area, and surveyed the damages. We had a leak in the roof that was exposed by the heavy rain, our landscaping was destroyed, and there were a lot of downed trees all around our neighborhood.

The first week after the storm was dedicated to my family. I spent that time taking care of my twin toddlers, clearing debris out of our backyard, and camping out in the living room, where we had a fan to keep cool.

As soon as I had a way to charge my phone, I used Remind 101 to check in with my students and make sure they were safe. After a week, we got power back, and my focus switched more to school.

By this time, almost all of the schools in Miami-Dade County Public Schools (MDCPS) had regained power, so the district reopened. Miami Sunset’s athletic directors and coaches got to work assessing our sport facilities for any issues that would impact student safety. Most of our athletic equipment had been properly stored, but the baseball team’s portable backstop had been twisted beyond repair, fencing was destroyed, and debris covered the playing fields.

A few years ago, I started a garden at Miami Sunset for students and athletes, and, unfortunately, it did not hold up well in the storm. Our garden shed was destroyed by the high winds, and plants were uprooted and broken.

Once school reopened, we began making plans to resume athletics. The Florida High School Athletic Association and MDCPS did a wonderful job ensuring the safety of student-athletes during this transition. For instance, MDCPS implemented a shortened heat acclimatization procedure to allow athletes to readjust to activity and re-acclimatize to the heat. Football players practiced in helmets only and progressed to full gear over the course of a week. No games were allowed for any sport until the athletes had four consecutive days of practices.

Missed games were made up during the season, which meant a lot of teams had a condensed schedule. Because of this, we focused more on recovery, and I educated athletes about stretching and hydration techniques. Football did less contact at practices surrounding the make-up games, and all other teams had restrictions on when they could return to competitions.

As an athletic trainer, I helped athletes during their return to activity by providing a sense of regularity. Most of our injured athletes did well while school was closed because it gave them time to rest and rehab. Upon their return to school, most of their small sprains and strains were completely resolved.

But for those that hadn’t, I made sure the athletes continued their rehabilitation. They were expected to attend practices, conditioning sessions, and physical therapy just as they had before the storm.

With families still recovering from Irma and many without power, MDCPS gave students free breakfast and lunch to ensure they were eating enough. I checked in with my student-athletes to make sure they were taking advantage of these meals and fueling appropriately for their practices and competitions.

Now almost a year later, Irma has had a lasting effect on our school. Students, athletes, and staff are able to face daily challenges with a new sense of connectedness, and we’ve come together to rebuild what we’ve lost. For instance, three months after the storm, Miami Sunset secured a grant that allowed us to replace the destroyed plants in our garden. This spring, we had limes, peppers, okra, broccoli, and other vegetables and fruits growing.

One of the biggest lessons that I learned from this experience is the importance of having a disaster plan for my sports medicine program. From securing my athletic training room to checking in with athletes, this plan is crucial for ensuring that student-athletes are ready in the face of a disaster and know what to do to stay safe.

This article appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of Training & Conditioning.

Image by U.S. Coast Guard.

Erin Cernuda, ATC/L, is Head Athletic Trainer at Miami (Fla.) Sunset Senior High School, where she also teaches science. She was a 2016 recipient of the Gatorade Secondary School Athletic Trainer Award and can be reached at: [email protected].

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