Warhawks with a front seat to Hurricane Irma

September 27, 2017

Written by Kristine Zaballos   |  Photos submitted

Mittness and RittenhouseWhen Nichole Mittness graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in December 2016 with a B.S. in geography with an emphasis in geology and a minor in environmental sciences, she was thrilled to have already accepted a job offer from the Florida Department of Transportation in Tallahassee. There she would join her boyfriend, Ryan Rittenhouse, who had graduated from UW-Whitewater in the spring. Rittenhouse had already begun a master's program at Florida State University and would later join her at the FDOT.

What she didn't know was that by early September 2017, they would both have front-row seats to and play critical roles in the state's emergency response to Hurricane Irma, an extremely powerful category 5 hurricane that was the most intense observed in the Atlantic Ocean since 2007.

Both Mittness, who works in the DOT's geographic information systems department making aerial and county maps, and Rittenhouse, who serves in the transportation and data analytics office, were called to the State Emergency Response Team during the state of emergency. Maps made by the two of them and colleagues were used by the SERT and police, rescue and military personnel as the storm approached and then crossed the state.

Florida DOT"On the first day we were told to come up with the visuals and the talking points to give to the governor, so he could brief the White House," said Rittenhouse, who graduated with a B.A. in geography with an urban emphasis and a minor in environmental science.

But Rittenhouse was ready. He'd taken a business and industry GIS course at UW-Whitewater with Jeffrey Olson, assistant professor of geography, geology and environmental science, where on the first day of class the professor had told students that they had the semester to work together solve a complex problem without any guidance on what information they needed or where to get the information.

And that, Olson explained to the class, was the point: in the real world, people will ask them to solve problems but not necessarily tell them how, and that they'd need to find ways to get their own data sets and figure out how to move forward. Eventually students did just that, which set Rittenhouse up for success in his role with the FDOT office of emergency management.

"UW-Whitewater's focus on writing and communication skills played a huge role as well," said Rittenhouse. "Especially being able to convey complex technical information to an unfamiliar audience."

And when that audience is relying on accurate information to safely guide them from a storm's path, the stakes are even higher.

"Staff would inform us of a road closure and ask us to find out precisely where the road was flooded and then create a detour map," said Mittness. "I used all the tools I'd learned in reading topography and hydrological layers and understanding river basins and water flow to update those maps," adding that the maps were also used by a military command center to safely direct supplies around the state.

Both Mittness and Rittenhouse stressed how well their undergraduate education had prepared them to be, as Rittenhouse described it, "Eight feet away from the governor and helping with the single-largest evacuation in U.S. history."

"What I find remarkable about my education is that they not only taught us how to do things, like develop the cartographic skills to make maps attractive and readable, but also to understand the underlying processes — what data is out there and how to find it — to be able to put it to use."

MapAs a result, when Mittness and Rittenhouse found themselves tasked with live updating maps that were in turn automatically updated on Google Maps and Apple Maps, they had the skills they needed. And it helped that one of those skills learned in Olson's class was not panicking.

Rittenhouse also stressed that he felt UW-Whitewater gave him the experience he needed to succeed in his graduate studies at Florida State University.

"The faculty across the board is amazing," he said. "My undergraduate degree prepared me spectacularly well for my master's program at FSU, and I expect to graduate early."

After Irma had passed over the state, the State Emergency Response Team continued to serve, helping guide millions of residents safely back to their homes through record river heights that shut down bridges and flooded roads across the state. With recovery and cleanup efforts well underway, most of the state is back to normal, and all but one of the roads are open. But the team, including Mittness and Rittenhouse, was back on Level 2 alert as Hurricane Maria swept through the Caribbean.