Mother, Online Student Perseveres Through Hurricane Ian
Meaghan Smith handed a plastic bin to her 11-year-old daughter, Mira, and told her she had five minutes to fill it with everything she wanted to save in the house.
Hurricane Ian was bearing down on southwestern Florida and Smith knew their lives may be in danger if they didn’t evacuate their Cape Coral home right away. Both were crying as Mira packed her bin with stuffed animals, her new Halloween costume, books, and a Nintendo Switch.
Smith tried to place as many items as possible at a high level in case their house flooded. She grabbed the dog, flew out of the house, and jumped into the car. They drove five miles inland to a friend’s house, not knowing what they may find once they returned home.
Amid all the chaos, Smith was trying to fill her role as the media relations manager for the Lee Health Hospital System. There were important updates to send during the crisis and news outlets that desperately needed information.
Once her daughter was safely situated inside her friend’s house, Smith opened her laptop and sent out a media advisory right before the power went out.
The whirlwind last September didn’t stop Smith from completing her work in the CCI Online Master’s Program. Once things calmed down, the upcoming graduate emailed Program Manager Alexis Anderson to explain her situation.
“She said take care of yourself and take care of your job. We can talk about this later,” Smith said. “It ended up being a big part of my practicum. It was to develop a crisis communication plan and I was able to use those skills I learned first-hand to work on that.”
As families around the country prepare to celebrate Mother’s Day this weekend, Smith, 42, is a shining example of moms enrolled in the CCI Online program who juggle multiple responsibilities to further their education and careers.
“She was working as the communications person doing a lot of the typical responsibilities, but also taking care of her daughter—who wasn’t able to go to school at that time—and also pursuing her master’s degree, and she didn’t stop,” Anderson said. “She just kept up her studies, kept Mom-ing, kept working and did it all with a positive attitude.”
Making a career shift
Smith went to high school in Johnson City and attended East Tennessee State University for her undergraduate degree in communications. She became an award-winning TV reporter and eventually moved to Florida to take a job at a local NBC affiliate covering crime.
Once she gave birth to her daughter, Smith realized she wanted more work-life balance so she could spend as much time with her family as possible.
She decided to move to a career in public relations. Smith enrolled in the CCI Online Master’s Program in 2020 to gain more skills and have the option of teaching college classes.
“Education has always been a big part of my upbringing and my family. My dad has his PhD and I watched as a little girl how hard he worked for it and what he could accomplish through it,” she said. “I have always had a great level of respect for that and it’s always been something I wanted to pursue.”
Smith had to make some changes in her daily routine to fit school back into her life. She became an early bird, rising at 4 a.m. each day to finish her schoolwork before taking her daughter to school.
“By the time my daughter wakes up, I have two hours-worth of school done and go to work, do my job, and come home and can be a mom and make dinner and go to soccer games and help with homework and all that stuff,” Smith said. “That is very important to me. I didn’t do the program as fast as some others did, and that was strategic so I could make sure it all balanced out.”
Surviving the storm
The forecast for Hurricane Ian wasn’t initially as bad as it turned out. The tropical storm developed into a high-end Category 4 hurricane with maximum winds of 150 mph by the time it reached landfall in Florida. Capel Coral, which borders Fort Myers and is where Smith lives, was hit particularly hard with high winds and large storm surges.
Before the storm grew in intensity, Smith felt it was the safest option to stay home. Her house was newer and sits at a higher level than some others. Smith also felt it could be dangerous to drive on congested roads and search for a hotel.
But after a work call with hospital officials at 6:30 in the morning the day Ian hit, she decided it was time to evacuate.
“I think that is when it truly hit me how bad it was going to be,” Smith said. “Ending the incident command call, spiritual services came on and said a prayer on that call.”
Smith’s husband, Josh, is a sheriff’s deputy and was helping with evacuations and search and recovery. Because of the power outages, their communication was limited.
“I had no idea if my husband was dead or alive,” she said. “The last thing I heard from him was that the roof sounded like it was coming off where he was and they were going to huddle together in the bathroom.”
Smith was eventually able to connect with her husband later that night to let her know he was safe. She drove to her house the morning after she evacuated, maneuvering around boats, power lines, roofs, and other debris. She pried a shutter open and climbed through her bedroom window to assess the damage.
“There was no water in there. The storm surge made it into our garage and up to the front door, but we missed it getting into our house by a matter of inches,” she said. “We had other damage to our roof and our pool cage was gone, but that was nothing compared to what some people faced. We were very lucky.”
Smith drove to the nearest hospital to get WiFi and power for work. The emergency room parking lot was being used to triage patients because there were so many people who needed emergency care due to the hurricane. She was escorted to a fifth-floor conference room that was all glass.
Once she logged into her computer, she had 80 emails in her inbox and her phone began buzzing uncontrollably with messages. Smith turned everything off and looked out the window. Helicopters were flying everywhere and the city looked like a disaster scene.
“I remember thinking, ‘Can I do this right now?’” she said. “Because I had no sleep and was an emotional basket case. Twelve hours before, I didn’t know if my husband was alive and I thought my decision to stay was going to kill me and my entire family.”
Smith took a deep breath, shed some tears and got to work helping others searching for information and resources from the hospitals.
Mastering her future
In reading Smith’s application to enroll in the CCI Online Master’s Program, Anderson was impressed by her credentials and ambition.
“She is somebody who wants to do better at their job and I think that ties back to the Volunteer spirit,” Anderson said. “What she did at the hospital was above and beyond the call of duty. Even in a communications role, she really stepped up in a crisis situation.”
Smith has recently accepted a new job in public relations for the Lee County courthouse. Having gone through the CCI Online Master’s Program, Smith feels well equipped for any role in her future.
“I feel like I have been able to walk away from this with not just a piece of paper, but with so many different life skills and things I would have never learned had I not done this,” she said. “I also feel like I am walking away from this entire process feeling so supported. It’s just been a really good experience. I loved every step of the way.”
Written by Rhiannon Potkey