Twice this year, UWF has closed the campus for hurricanes. We were spared the wrath of Hurricane Irma and caught only a glancing blow from Hurricane Nate, but we seized the opportunity to use our resources to help our state and our community. We offered to let Gulf Power use our field house as a staging area for linemen gearing up for the storm. More than 90 of our students along with several faculty and staff members volunteered at the Pensacola Bay Center’s public shelter. We stand ready to help when the need arises.
Hurricanes aren’t the only time when UWF has stepped up to help in a crisis. I was reminded of this on Oct. 13 when news stories about an oil pipeline ruptured about 40 miles southeast of Venice, La., and again on Oct. 15 when an oil rig in Lake Pontchartrain exploded. Those articles took me back to April 2010 when a similar event affected our community.
After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, UWF faculty members led research teams to look at how this would affect our area. We had more than 20 years of research data to give us an in-depth picture of what our environment looked like before the spill. Among the research projects we started after the spill were water sampling from 10 sites in Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties to look for dissolved oil. These findings were reported to the Escambia County Health Department so that water safety determinations could be made. We also looked for potential damage to delicate ecosystems like sea grass beds. Another research team monitored fish and invertebrate communities that were impacted by the spill. We had long-term data from nearly 100 natural and artificial reefs from Destin to Alabama to use for comparisons.
The area’s tourism industry used UWF’s data as a third-party validation to let visitors know that the water and beaches were safe to visit.
We didn’t stop at just looking at the spill from a scientific standpoint. UWF managed and administered $30 million of funding from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity to aid in job creation and economic diversification in the eight Northwest Florida counties most affected by the oil spill. Our most recent report on the success of this program found that the grant created 28,066 new and retained jobs that had a $4 billion impact on the state’s gross domestic product. We helped a number of new businesses start or expand and kept others from moving out of our area. We also helped recruit a number of new businesses to our region.
The Florida Small Business Development Center at UWF also worked closely with area businesses adversely affected by the spill. We helped businesses acquire bridge loans and navigate the claims process. After Hurricane Irma, we sent two 38-foot mobile units equipped with laptops, printers and internet connections to help small businesses in the areas hit by the storm.
Throughout our 50th Anniversary, we’ve been talking about Sea Change—a profound transformation. We see change and rush forward. We also see opportunities to help our region experience a profound transformation by making the most of our assets, helping businesses grow and thrive and coming to the aid of our neighbors when disaster strikes. We stand with our community through good times and bad.