Q&A: Matt Shpiner speaks about ongoing Hurricane Irma recovery process

Matt Sphiner has served as the Director of Emergency Management at the University since June 2016. Photo credit: Tommy Fletcher

It’s been more than three months since South Florida, including the University of Miami, was ravaged by Hurricane Irma, leading to a disrupted fall 2017 academic calendar and extensive recovery efforts. Months later, Director of Emergency Management Matthew Shpiner describes the university’s ongoing recovery process.

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Matt Sphiner has served as the Director of Emergency Management at the University since June 2016. Photo credit: Tommy Fletcher

TMH: It’s been months since Hurricane Irma ravaged South Florida. Is the University of Miami still recovering from damages sustained in the storm?

MS: Recovery is a long-term process, especially when you face a disaster like Irma when there were actual impacts sustained. So, in our case, we’re very lucky that our infrastructure and our buildings held really strongly during the storm. In our case, there is also a significant amount of financial recovery for the university. So that’s where a lot of work is being done right now. Administrators are pulling together the paperwork associated with the storm and submitting that to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to request cost reimbursement for costs that were incurred by the institution.

TMH: How much did Hurricane Irma cost the university?

MS: I don’t have an exact number, but it’s in the millions.

TMH: How long will it take FEMA to reimburse the university? What is the process?

MS: It’s a very detailed and long-term process, which, depending on the nature of the expenses, the reimbursement rates tend to be between 75 and 90 percent. There’s different reimbursement rates for different types of activities, everything from debris removal to additional police officers working the roadway to evacuation center staffing. The university spent a lot of time in our plans, making sure that we follow the requirements set forth by FEMA to maximize the potential for reimbursement. It is likely to take anywhere from six months to two years, and when you have this many large-scale disasters happening in the United States … There are a lot of these types of claims being made to FEMA, so that may slow down the process.

TMH: Is there any debris still being picked up around the university campuses?

MS: The debris removal was completed in almost a record pace, especially when you look at the university versus surrounding cities and counties, which you could see for weeks were still trying to clear their debris. There are still some minor repairs being done. If you look around the Coral Gables, Marine and Medical campuses, unless you have a side-by-side picture, you wouldn’t be able to see the difference of the storm. That’s a positive thing. We did, unfortunately, lose a lot of trees. That will be longer term, in terms of finding the right trees to replant. There are still minor infrastructure repairs that we’re still doing. They are very minor in what was the potential impact that we could have faced.

TMH: Looking back, what have you learned from the experience of Hurricane Irma?

MS: Part of the process that we do after any hurricane is we go through our Action Review and Improvement Plan. In the case of Irma, with how large scale it was, that’s a longer-term process. So the things that we were able to identify that went really, really well … There was no major injury that was reported by any UM employee or student, and that is really important, that we keep people safe … That there was nobody that got hurt. The university units did a great job of coordinating information. There are so many different individual departments in the university that you don’t want wrong information going out to the university community. Some of the things that we recognize we could get better is we have a policy that relates to essential personnel … In the case of Irma, we ended up being shutdown even for essential functions, so, because of safety concerns on the Coral Gables campus, we didn’t really want any employees that weren’t essential to be on campus until we knew the campus was safe. We have to update our essential personnel policy to identify that we actually have three categories of employees, where previously we had two categories. We also want to keep getting better from a recovery process. We always want to be able to do it faster, in a cost-effective manner.

TMH: Now that hurricane season is over, what is the Office of Emergency Management working on?

MS: While hurricane season is over, the planning process really has to be almost ongoing on an annual basis, especially in light of the experience with Irma. While hurricanes are number one hazard of threat that we would prepare for, it’s certainly not the only one. In the off-season, we’ll continue doing active-shooter response training to make sure that we have a prepared and engaged community for potential threats that we could face. While emergency management spends a lot of time talking about hurricanes, that’s certainly not the only threat that we’re vulnerable to.