June 2008 // Volume 46 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA6

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Disaster Preparedness and Professional and Personal Challenges of County Extension Faculty During the 2004 Florida Hurricane Season

The purpose of the study reported here was to determine how well University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Extension faculty were prepared to deal with professional demands, job expectations and clientele needs, while coping with personal hardships as a result of the 2004 hurricane season. Results indicate that respondents were not well prepared to deal with professional challenges and the emotional symptoms of clientele during the hurricane season. Respondents reported needing training in disaster preparedness, in applying subject matter expertise in disaster situations, and in assisting coworkers to cope with stress.

Ricky Telg
University of Florida
Gainesville, Florida

Tracy Irani
Associate Professor
University of Florida
Gainesville, Florida

Nick Place
Associate Professor
University of Maryland
College Park, Maryland

Abbe R. DeGroat
4-H Educational Instructor
UF/IFAS Pinellas County Extension
Largo, Florida

Howard Ladewig
University of Florida
Gainesville, Florida

Mark Kistler
Assistant Professor
North Carolina State University
Raleigh, North Carolina

Rose Barnett
Associate Professor
University of Florida
Gainesville, Florida


Of the six hurricanes making landfall in the United States in 2004, four of them ravaged the state of Florida within a 6-week period. According to the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation (2005), in excess of $22 billion of insured losses resulted from hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne. Each of Florida's 67 counties was greatly affected by hurricanes, as indicated by the damage or destruction sustained by one of every five homes (Dickey, 2004). The agricultural and allied industries in Florida sustained damages of approximately $2.1 billion (UF/IFAS, 2005). For some, the 2004 hurricane season simply caused a disruption in routine; for many others, it represented a time of fear and uncertainty.

One organization that has been called upon to help during times of natural disasters is the Cooperative Extension Service. The grassroots nature of Extension provides a unique ability to aid community and state residents in times of disaster. In the state of Florida, Cooperative Extension is designated as a support agency to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to provide emergency medical care, evacuation, rescue, confinement, shelter, food and water, and identification to all animals affected by a natural disaster (FDEM, 2000).

Although the Cooperative Extension Service has a designated role as a support agency in many--if not all--states, limited understanding exists concerning the organizational and professional role of Extension faculty during disasters who must still maintain the ability to meet personal and familial needs. Therefore, the purpose of the study reported here was to determine the readiness on the part of University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences' Cooperative Extension Service faculty to serve as front-line responders in the preparation and recovery from the 2004 hurricane season.

Front-line responders are usually defined as those organizations--such as fire services, emergency management services, hospitals, public health departments, and law enforcement--who provide emergency medical care, rescue accident victims, and respond to natural or manmade disasters (Partnership for Community Safety, 2002). During the 2004 hurricane season, Florida's Extension professionals were on the front line to provide aid to storm victims, sometimes when the professionals themselves were severely affected by the storm (UF/IFAS, 2005). The study sought to determine how well Extension faculty were prepared to deal with professional needs, job expectations, and clientele demands, while coping with personal hardships as a result of the hurricanes.

Literature Review

Although many definitions of the term "crisis" exist, a widely accepted definition was created by the Institute for Crisis Management, which states that a crisis is "a significant business disruption which results in extensive news media coverage and public scrutiny" (as cited in Irvine & Millar, 1996). Organizations can prepare for a crisis in advance, but they may not know when it will occur (Coombs, 1999). Natural disasters are a unique type of crisis, as the crisis situation that results can evolve into a different type. For example, the crisis situation faced by a community may have initially begun as a result of a hurricane, but it can eventually become an economic crisis or cause transportation accidents (Seeger, Sellnow, & Ulmer, 2003). In addition, natural disasters are unique in that "the suddenness and magnitude of the occurrence renders the areas affected by natural disasters unable to respond effectively to the emergency because the devastation exceeds the capacity of the area's resources" (Galambos, 2005, p. 83).

Crisis management is made up of four components: prevention, preparation, performance, and learning (Coombs, 1999). Prevention includes activities that can prevent the crisis all together. Preparation involves the crisis management plan, forecasting when and where a crisis may occur due to vulnerabilities, selecting and training a crisis management team and spokesperson to respond to crises, creating a crisis portfolio, and improving the crisis communication system (Coombs, 1999). As a result of the preparation phase of crisis management, performance can be tested through the use of a simulated or real crisis. The fourth aspect of crisis management is learning, the phase in which an organization evaluates those actions taken during the performance phase in response to an actual or invented crisis.

Although the crisis situations that organizations may face can vary greatly, it is possible for an organization to create a crisis plan, including a crisis communication plan, to allow the organization to lessen potentially negative consequences and reduce uncertainties in the event of a crisis (Whiting, Tucker, & Whaley, 2004, p. 10). Because crisis situations require a quick response time, the crisis management plan is crucial, because it contains previously collected background information, responsibilities of crisis team members, and a blueprint for actions that must be taken by certain members once the crisis does occur (Coombs, 1999).

The crisis management plan represents a general guideline and must be able to be adapted to the individual circumstances that the team will encounter (Coombs, 1999). As a result, open communication within the organization is critical for the crisis management plan to succeed (Penrose, 2000). In a study conducted to determine the crisis communication readiness at land-grant universities, "more than one third (36.4%) of the respondents indicated a crisis plan was in place for extension, while less than one-fourth said that a plan was in place for either their experiment station (22.7 percent) or academic or teaching programs (18.2%)" (Whiting, Tucker, & Whaley, 2003, p. 14).


The research design for the study was a Web-based descriptive survey consisting of a researcher-developed questionnaire with 76 qualitative and quantitative items that measured Extension faculty personal and professional needs, disaster preparedness, communication efforts, disaster resources used, Extension's impact during hurricane relief efforts, and demographic information. The survey questionnaire also contained 11 questions designed to learn more about social and demographic characteristics of the respondents. The population for this study included all UF/IFAS county Extension faculty and District Extension Directors (n=328) with a viable e-mail address as of October 2004 (Irani, Kistler, Telg, & Place, 2005). The original population consisted of 332 e-mail addresses; however, corrections, due to faulty addresses and retirements, resulted in an actual population of 328.

The study utilized the online Web survey site Zoomerang to develop the instrument. Questions were adapted from previous research on professional development and agricultural scientists' communication efforts (Ruth, Lundy, Telg, & Irani, 2005), as well as specific questions the researchers believed necessary to gain a clear understanding of Extension's role during the hurricane preparation and recovery efforts. Experts from the departments of Family Youth and Community Sciences, Agricultural and Biological Engineering, Food and Resource Economics, and Clinical and Health Psychology were also asked to include and edit questions related to disaster preparedness, educational materials, agents' personal needs (including mental health issues), and community support needs. These experts served as a panel of experts, reviewing the questionnaire for face and content validity. Their input was used to refine and finalize the resulting instrument.

The final survey questionnaire utilized a variety of question types, including open-ended questions, dichotomous yes/no questions, selection from multiple choices, and Likert-type scale questions. Responses items for the Likert scale questions ranged from 1 = "not at all," 2 = "slight extent," 3 = "moderate extent," to 4 = "great extent." The multiple choice responses depended upon the question being asked and were not identical for each question.

In order to maximize response to the Web survey and control for nonresponse error, multiple contacts were made through email (Dillman, 2000, p. 150). A pre-notice cover letter was sent to all county Extension faculty and District Extension Directors on November 30, 2004, by email. A second email, consisting of an overview of the study and a link to the Web-based questionnaire, was sent several days later. Two waves of follow-up--on December 9 and 20, 2004--were conducted to encourage nonrespondents to complete the questionnaire. The link to the survey was then closed on January 5, 2005, preventing any new responses.

The data was analyzed using descriptive statistics and the constant comparative method. The SPSS ® Student Version 12.0 for Windows software was used to analyze the quantitative data. The standard deviation, means, and cross tabulations were calculated for appropriate question with scaled-item responses and were presented in tabular form (Ary, Jacobs, & Razavieh, 2002). Post hoc reliability was calculated for the resulting scaled item responses. The standardized alpha for these questions was α=.83.


The overall response rate consisted of 208 out of 328, or 63.41%. The primary program areas of respondents were as follows: family and consumer sciences, 24%; agriculture/natural resources, 23%; 4-H/youth development, 19%; ornamental/environmental horticulture, 11%; urban horticulture (including Master Gardener), 8%; Sea Grant/aquaculture, 4%; commercial horticulture (including vegetables, citrus, and forestry), 4%; community development, 1%; and "other," 6%.

In addition, it was found that 38% of the respondents were male (70) and 62% (114) were female. The majority of survey respondents were Caucasian (90%), followed by African-American, 2.7%; Hispanic/Latino, 1.6%; Native American, 1.6%; and other, 4.1%. The years of experience with the Cooperative Extension Service ranged from less than a year to over 35 years (Irani, Kistler, Telg, & Place, 2005, p. 2). A response was received from 63 of Florida's 67 counties.

Disaster Management Preparation of Extension Faculty

One aspect of crisis management includes preparation by the organization and its constituents. It is important to determine how well prepared Extension faculty were to deal with both the tumultuous hurricane season of 2004 and other crisis situations that may threaten Florida's population. The UF/IFAS publication The Disaster Handbook serves as the major resource available to county faculty when dealing with crisis situations, specifically natural disasters. As a result, researchers sought to determine how aware faculty were of The Disaster Handbook, in terms of its presence, training, and use.

As reported in Table 1, the majority of faculty (94.2%) knew that their office had a copy of The Disaster Handbook and where it was located within the office (85.1%). Although most were aware of the presence of the publication in their office, most Extension faculty had not become familiar with or reviewed it recently, prior to the start of the 2004 hurricane season. For instance, 31.7% had not reviewed the publication in more than a year, and 38.5% had never reviewed it. Most (68.8%) had never been trained on its use.

Table 1.
Faculty Awareness and Use of The Disaster Handbook (N=208)

Does your office have the UF/IFAS publication, The Disaster Handbook?
No Response125.8
Do you know where The Disaster Handbook is located within your office?
No Response115.3
Have you ever been trained on how to use The Disaster Handbook?
No Response115.3
Prior to the 2004 hurricane season, when was the last time you reviewed or used The Disaster Handbook?
Within 12 months before the 2004 hurricane season began4722.6
More than a year ago6631.7
No Response157.2

Using Pearson's product-moment coefficient (Table 2), a relationship was found between a faculty member's use of The Disaster Handbook during the hurricane season and his or her training on its use.

Table 2
Pearson's Product-Moment Correlation with Relationship Between The Disaster Handbook Use and Training by Faculty (N=196)

VariableHave you ever been trained on how to use The Disaster Handbook?
Did you refer to The Disaster Handbook during the hurricane season or for any other disaster in 2004?.203*
*Statistically significant at .05 level

Preparation on the part of Extension faculty was also determined by how able they were to address the professional challenges they faced. As reported in Table 3, fewer than one in 10 faculty members reported being prepared to a great extent for the challenges they faced. Only 7% reported being greatly prepared to address stress or emotional symptoms of clientele after the hurricanes.

Table 3.
Extent to Which Faculty Members Were Prepared to Address Professional Obligations (N=208)

VariableNo Response (Percent)Not at All (Percent)Slight Extent (Percent)Moderate Extent (Percent)Great Extent (Percent)
To what extent were you prepared to address the professional challenges you faced?
To what extent were you prepared to address the stress or emotional symptoms your clientele exhibited after the hurricanes?8.713.533.737.07.2

The relationship between the extent of preparation on the part of faculty to address professional challenges and the extent to which they were prepared to address the stress or emotional symptoms exhibited by clientele after the hurricanes was further examined. The Pearson's product-moment coefficient of .589 indicates that the more prepared faculty members were to address professional challenges, the more prepared faculty members were to address the stress of their clientele.

As seen in Table 4, job performance may be affected by the personal experience of each faculty member during the hurricane season, such as if their house was damaged. However, it was found that the job performance, including trouble concentrating or missed work, of approximately one in three faculty members was not at all affected by their personal experiences during the 2004 hurricane season.

Table 4.
Extent to Which the Personal Experience of Faculty Affected Their Job Performance (N=208)

VariableNo Response (Percent)Not at All (Percent)Slight Extent (Percent)Moderate Extent (Percent)Great Extent (Percent)
To what extent did your personal experience affect your job performance- such as having trouble concentrating or missing work?3.834.641.317.32.9

As a front-line responder to the hurricanes of 2004, the role of Extension includes providing disaster-related information to those affected. As a result, a factor affecting job performance would be the ability of faculty to access local, state, federal, and other non-governmental agencies. As indicated in Table 5, the higher the calculated mean--on a scale from 1 to 4, with 1="not at all" to 4="great extent"--the more the agency was used by Extension faculty during the hurricane season. The three most-used local agencies included county emergency management, local/regional utilities, and the county health department. In terms of state agencies, UF/IFAS was used the most. The federal agency most widely used was the United States Department of Agriculture: Farm Service Agency. In addition, non-governmental agencies that were used included the Red Cross and the Salvation Army.

Table 5.
Most-Used Agencies/Organizations by Extension Faculty During the 2004 Hurricane Season (N=208)

Local AgencyMean*SD
County Emergency Management2.841.2
Local Utilities- Electric/Gas1.811.0
County Health Department1.781.0
Federal AgencyMeanSD
Farm Service Agency2.061.2
National Hurricane Center1.831.2
Red Cross1.630.93
Salvation Army1.300.65
*Scale of 1 to 4, with 1="not at all" to 4="great extent"

Personal and Professional Hardships and Stress

It is critical as staff of a front-line responding organization that Extension faculty are able to perform their job and carry out the organization's goals to aid those in need. As a result, it was important to determine the extent to which faculty experienced personal hardships and stress, and if they had support for their emotional and physical needs during this time.

As seen in Table 6, one-quarter of respondents reported that they experienced damage to their home or other personal hardships from a moderate to great extent. In addition, as a result of the hurricanes, nearly one in 10 faculty members reported that they experienced personal stress or emotional symptoms. Although many did experience such hardships, about one in three respondents reported that they had support for their own emotional needs to a great extent. In addition, about half (48.6%) of Extension faculty reported having a source of support for their physical needs, such as shelter, food, water, or electricity, to a great extent.

Table 6.
Extent to Which Faculty Experienced Personal Hardships and Stress (N=208)

 Frequency of Use
Variable No Response (Percent)Not at All (Percent)Slight Extent (Percent)Moderate Extent (Percent)Great Extent (Percent)
To what extent did you experience damage to your home or experience other personal hardships?3.323.645.720.76.7
To what extent did you experience personal stress or emotional symptoms while involved in hurricane preparation and relief efforts?3.81238.536.19.6

In addition to personal hardships, Extension faculty may have faced professional difficulties when trying to perform their job functions. The barrier that was reported to have gotten in the way of faculty utilizing certain resources, such as The Disaster Handbook, was they did not have time to access the materials. In addition, a second barrier was that faculty did not know that certain materials were available. Without electricity in many areas of Florida for weeks following the hurricanes, many did not have access to computers to be able to retrieve necessary documents and information. In addition to these barriers that contributed to the occurrence of professional hardships, approximately one in six (13.5%) members of Extension faculty reported that that it was difficult, to a great extent, to balance personal and professional needs (Table 7).

Table 7.
Difficulty of Extension Faculty in Balancing Personal and Professional Needs (N=208)

 Frequency of Use
 No Response (Percent)Not at All (Percent)Slight Extent (Percent)Moderate Extent (Percent)Great Extent (Percent)
To what extent was it difficult for you to balance personal and professional needs?

Using a cross-tabulation (Table 8), of those respondents who reported that they experienced a high degree of personal stress or emotional symptoms, 16.3% reported a high level of difficulty in balancing personal and professional needs. Of those who reported a very high degree of personal stress, 4.7% reported a high level of difficulty in balancing personal and professional needs.

Table 8.
Respondents Who Reported Experiencing Personal Stress or Emotional Symptoms and Who Said It Was Difficult to Balance Personal and Professional Needs to a Great Extent (N=190)

VariableExperienced Personal Stress or Emotional Symptoms
Difficulty in balancing personal and professional needs Low (Percent)Medium (Percent)High (Percent)Very High (Percent)
Low (Percent)14 (7.4)2 (1.1)2 (1.1)2 (1.1)
Medium (Percent)21 (11.1)39 (20.5)14 (7.4)4 (2.1)
High (Percent)3 (1.6)25 (13.2)31 (16.3)13 (6.8)
Very High (Percent)2 (1.1)4 (2.1)5 (2.6)9 (4.7)

In order to improve Extension's response to disasters in the future, the potential needs of Extension faculty must be examined, and a response must be formulated to meet these needs. Table 9 reports that faculty most need professional development in the area of hurricane disaster recovery, followed by the application of their subject matter in disaster situations.

Table 9.
Extension Faculty's Need for Professional Development in Preparation for Hurricanes and Other Emergency Situations (N=208)

Professional Development NeedFrequency of Use
No Response (Percent)Not

at All (Percent)

Slight Extent (Percent)Moderate Extent (Percent)Great Extent (Percent)MeanSD
Hurricane disaster recovery6.76.720.23828.42.940.90
Applying my subject matter in disaster situations6.314.424.530.324.52.691.0
Helping clientele cope with stress6.311.530.335.116.82.610.92
Hurricane disaster preparedness6.713.933.232.713.52.490.92
Helping coworkers cope with stress6.314.934.633.211.12.430.90
Working with the media6.721.128.430.313.52.390.99
Coping with personal stress5.822.648.
Personal needs (emotional and physical)7.230.838.518.35.31.980.87


Extension Faculty Not Well Prepared

Overall, it is suggested from the study reported here that Extension faculty were not well prepared to deal with their demands as front-line responders. Not only were most not well prepared to deal with professional challenges they faced, they also were not trained on using resources such as The Disaster Handbook, that could have helped during this time. Over half of respondents indicated they had referred to The Disaster Handbook during the hurricane season or for another disaster in 2004. Although this does indicate that the publication is being used, the lack of training being offered to faculty suggests that they had to become familiar with its contents during the crisis situation and it may not be utilized to its fullest potential.

As Florida continues to be affected by natural disasters, and hurricanes in particular, a continuous need exists for Extension faculty to receive professional development, training, curricula, and resources for the future. The greatest need of faculty was for training in hurricane disaster recovery, followed by applying subject matter in disaster situations and helping clientele to cope with stress. Other areas that were identified as important are hurricane disaster preparedness, helping coworkers deal with stress, working with the media, and coping with personal stress.

Through correlation analysis, it was found that as preparation to address the professional challenges faced by faculty increases, preparation to address the stress and emotional symptoms exhibited by clientele increases as well. Thus, it would seem that if faculty feel prepared to meet their job expectations and perform their jobs well during disasters, they have the confidence that they will be able to deal with added responsibility of dealing with abnormal clientele demands. Although Extension faculty are not in the business of mental health, it is important to remember that they are on the front lines of disaster response, dealing with clientele on a close basis. It is important for faculty to know basic techniques in dealing with such demands and where to refer clientele.

Through correlation analysis, it was found that faculty preparation was associated with more years of experiences within the Florida Cooperative Extension Service. As faculty gain experience in their position, they acquire skills, knowledge, and outside contacts and resources that aid them when dealing with disaster situations. A knowledge base is built as an agent deals with a variety of situations, which one cannot gain directly through training alone. Mentoring by more experienced faculty could prove beneficial for newer faculty.

Resources and Support

There also was a significant lack of resource utilization by faculty in terms of accessing local, state, federal, and non-governmental agencies and organizations. The most utilized included county emergency management (local), UF/IFAS (state), US Department of Agriculture: Farm Service Agency (federal), and Salvation Army (non-governmental). Faculty did recognize the importance of cooperation among organizations and agencies that are expected to conduct disaster relief.

For some faculty who experienced personal hardships such as damage to their homes, fulfilling their job expectations proved difficult. However, respondents also indicated that they had significant sources of support for their emotional and physical needs, such as shelter, food, water, and electricity.

The fact that support systems were in place may have served to significantly reduce the effect that personal hardships played in the lives of faculty. Respondents indicated that their emotional and physical needs were supported primarily by family, friends, neighbors, and other Extension coworkers. However, the Extension organization does need to be aware that there may be faculty who do not have these supports available to them. Considering this, Extension should make support available, such as places to stay for the duration for faculty and crisis counselors. This is especially important if local Extension offices are requiring their employees to aid in the disaster preparation and recovery.


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