Before last September not many friends and family knew of the city of Wilmington in North Carolina. Some friends didn’t even know where North Carolina was in the U.S! But that all changed when Hurricane Florence decided to grace the world with her presence in September of 2018 and set Wilmington as her target. The whole world watched her approaching. I’ve spent this past academic year studying at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and I had friends and family messaging saying they had seen the news in England, Wales and even Norway, asking would I be okay. As an international student, new to a country, without transport, the prospect of a mandatory evacuation can seem daunting and terrifying. “Where do I go? What do I do? Will I still be studying abroad? This isn’t meant to happen” were a few of the thoughts going through my head. Whilst I knew beforehand I would be out here during hurricane season, many friends I had made had reassured me that usually nothing happens and it all should be fine. But Florence was different. After she hit, the university said they’ve never had a hurricane cause so much devastation. I’ve decided to write this post giving some advice for future exchange students studying in hurricane prone areas from my experiences.

So, you’ve been told there may be a hurricane coming your way and you’re panicking. Here is some advice that may be useful:

  • DON’T PANIC- most likely the exchange university are somewhat prepared for a hurricane and will have a plan to help international students out.
  • Keep up to date with emails from the university you are currently at. They will let you know if lectures are cancelled, if you must stay in your room or if you must evacuate. The study abroad department/tutor of the exchange university will usually contact you too, with details on what you should do. So always check your emails.
  • Try make friends with some native students soon after you have arrived at the exchange university. Whilst they keep you company its also important to have a support network. They may be able to help you out with advice, take you hurricane preparation shopping, or even take you home with them if there is an evacuation. I am honestly so thankful to all my new American friends for looking after me, helping me and checking in with me seeing if I had a safe place to go. If you haven’t made friends yet, then DON’T PANIC. As I say the university will have a plan for international student and I promise you, you will make friends eventually too.
  • If you get a chance, go hurricane preparation shopping just in case. Get drinking water, canned food and non-perishables and power storage. But only go if it’s safe to go, shops will be busy, and people get a little stupid when there is a panic.
  • Keep all your essential electronics e.g. mobile phone and laptop, charged whilst you can, you may need them later.
  • May be a good idea to have a torch and spare batteries. If where you are staying allows it, candles and matches may be a good idea too.
  • Prepare your room, especially if you are on the ground floor or top floor of your building. Take things off shelves, pack away valuables and leave nothing but furniture on the floor. I packed all my belongings and clothes back into my cases, and put everything in my wardrobe, which was a little excessive but hey, better safe than sorry!
  • Ensure you have cash. It’s a good idea to have money in your bank account but if the power goes out you won’t be able to withdraw it, so make sure you have a fair amount of cash on hand if needs be.
  • Follow the university instructions. If they tell you to evacuate, don’t decide to hide out and have a hurricane party in your flat. Whilst that may be tempting for some, don’t be stupid! Go have fun elsewhere, part of studying abroad is adventure! If nothing else, you may be able to see a new part of the world!
  • If the university decides to evacuate, then try get out as quickly as possible. Chances are the roads will be busy as everyone will be leaving so it’s best to not dawdle and get caught in the traffic, just for your nerve’s sake. Don’t cause a panic though, just efficiently leave ASAP.
  • During the hurricane, if possible, make sure you keep in contact with friends and family back home, your home university and your exchange university. Let them all know where you are going/ what the plan is, how long you expect to stay there (this may change) and if you move to another place. Even if they don’t ask for this information, it’s better to update people in case anything goes wrong on your travels.
  • The aftermath of the hurricane may vary, it really depends how much damage occurs. If your studies are impacted, the exchange university will be in contact with you and I urge you to be in contact with your home university too.
  • Good luck and stay safe! Try to enjoy the adventure as much as you can.

If people are interested, here is what happened to me. In the build up to hurricane Florence the university issued a voluntary evacuation for staff and students. Lectures were cancelled from 12pm onward and students could leave halls of residence if they wanted to. The study abroad office at UNCW contacted us exchange students explaining the situation and there was mention of a safe place in Ashville we could go if needs be, though these details seemed very vague and they urged us to find friends to go home with. Luckily a friend of mine offered for me and two of my other international friends to come home with her to Charlotte. We left that afternoon and it’s a good thing we did, once the path of Florence had been finalised the next day, a mandatory evacuation of the whole of the university was ordered.

It was suggested we’d be away for 3-4 days maximum, so we had packed lightly. However, it turned out we would be out of university for a whole month. UNCW sent us regular updates throughout the hurricane advising us to stay away. We stayed in Charlotte for two weeks and had a great time sightseeing, going shopping, to the movies, and cuddling dogs. After that, UNCW informed us of a start back date which was a week later. We decided to head to New York City. We booked cheap flights and a hostel in Brooklyn and had the time of our lives exploring New York for 5 days. However, UNCW contacted all students whilst we were out there, changing the start back date to October, a week after the proposed date. We spent one day planning what we would do and trying to cancel or change flight dates (with no luck!). We stayed in NYC for a couple more days then got a MegaBus onto Washington DC and spent 4 days there before returning to Wilmington. What an adventure! I honestly had the time of my life with the girls I traveled with and made lifelong friends.

Coming back to Wilmington we saw the devastation Florence had caused. The flooding had been intense, trees and lampposts were down all around the city. On campus more damage had happened. The biology and chemistry building is still closed  to this day and awaiting renovation. The roofs of many of the buildings needed fixing and a few of the fresher dorm buildings were closed. Many students and staff were displaced. I was lucky enough to have not been affected by this. The campus community was strong though, people couldn’t do enough to help and the university pulled through the worst natural disaster they had experiences. It had never been closed for so long and sustained such damage. Whilst our education was disrupted, modifications were made to deadlines and assignments. It was stressful to complete the semester and settle back in, but we managed it and pulled through. I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to study abroad, even if this wasn’t part of the plan. My heart goes out to all affected by Florence, I know there are many still suffering the consequences of the storm and I realise my privilege in being only minimally affected.

What to do when a hurricane hits

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