County’s biggest strengths in facing Hurricane Irma were emergency response team and united county approach to disaster, former FEMA administrator says

Simplifying evacuations and issuing alerts and information across all media and social networks called key recommendations for improvements

Hurricane Irma closes in on Florida in September 2017. Image from NASA

Sarasota County’s two greatest strengths in facing Hurricane Irma in September 2017 were county government’s emergency response team and the fact that “you responded as one community,” Craig Fugate, the former Federal Emergency Management (FEMA) administrator, told the Sarasota County Commission on March 14.

Fugate offered the remarks in conjunction with the completion of the “after-action review” former County Administrator Tom Harmer initiated following Irma’s strike on the state. The Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation and the Gulf Coast Community Foundation paid the $20,000 fee for Fugate’s consulting services. The $26,000 expense for the Emergency Response Educators and Consultants (EREC) firm to assist with the review was covered by state emergency management grant funding the county received, county Media Relations Officer Jason Bartolone told The Sarasota News Leader this week.

The full report is available on the county’s website at It covers findings from 23 meetings that began in November 2017, along with interviews of about 350 “community partners,” as Rich Collins, the county’s emergency services director, characterized the individuals who collaborated with the county on its response.

“Contrary to some headlines last time I was here,” Fugate said on March 14, “I did not find tremendous disruption or problems in how the county responded. He was referring to remarks he made to local government, Sarasota County School District and other community leaders on Feb. 9 during a gathering at Suncoast Technical College in Sarasota.

“What I found was a team that was well built, trained and equipped to deal with one of the largest evacuation operations and sheltering missions that the county’s ever undertaken.”

Almost 20,000 people — including residents who had evacuated South Florida — sought refuge in Sarasota County schools hardened to withstand hurricanes under a longstanding agreement between Sarasota County and the School Board.

“The largest [number] prior to that was 2,000,” Fugate pointed out.

This is the forecast for Hurricane Irma as of 5 a.m. EDT on Sept. 10, 2017. Image from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Nonetheless, he continued, “we learned a lot of things in this event.”

One of the primary lessons, he began, is the need to make it easy for the public to understand where shelters are located. “We evacuate from water in hurricanes,” Fugate stressed. “That is the largest killer in storms.” Thus, he continued, shelters must be in areas that are not prone to flooding. A shelter has to be “safe from storm surge [and it must be able to] perform well in a high-wind event.”

Moreover, each shelter should be able to accept pets as well as people, he added. Trying to designate “pet-friendly” shelters, Fugate said, “is a fallacy,” noting that the county ended up opening every shelter to pets.

All shelters also need to open at the same time, he continued. More expense and more work for county employees will result from that, he acknowledged, but the goal is to “reduce uncertainty, because the more the public complies with evacuations, the better the outcome is.”

The county system was “built to maximize resources,” he said, “but it didn’t really meet the needs of our citizens.”

“Frankly, Irma did not directly impact the county,” he continued, though residents dealt with power outages and wind damage, he acknowledged.

These are the primary areas for improvement, the report says. ‘TFIT’ refers to the first teams to go out into the field to respond to problems after a storm strikes. ‘E-role’ is a county employee registration system. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Another strength for Sarasota County, he indicated, is the fact that it home to a number of foundations. While the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and faith-based organizations traditionally are seen as the primary support services in time of disaster, Fugate said, the foundations have no primary disaster role, in spite of their abundance of resources.

Community leaders need to develop protocols for utilizing those resources before, during and after a storm, he added.

Craig Fugate. Rachel Hackney photo

Yet another recommendation is for community leaders to put out identical messages across all media and platforms: “pre-scripting more [public service announcements].”

Fugate added, “Facebook and Twitter became very important tools” during Irma, but “I think you need to build upon that.” Many people in the county still rely on newspapers, radio and TV for their news, he stressed. “We can’t make ’em change in an emergency. We need to have our systems built around them.”

He summed up that approach as “many voices but one message.”

Yet another important consideration, he continued, is creating a plan that details which county services can be shut down earlier and which are needed right up until a storm strikes. “We really need to focus on what are the essential services that we have to continue running.”

Closing offices early enables more employees to make preparations with their families so they then can be available for disaster-related duties, he said. “Look at the entire workforce as part of an emergency team,” he added.

After a storm, those employees also need the opportunity to deal with any problems their families may have encountered or any damage their property may have suffered, Fugate said.

Nonetheless, “Sarasota County employees were here to serve,” he pointed out.

Post-storm issues and going forward

In dealing with post-storm issues, Fugate recommended that county staff consider requiring stronger performance bonds for debris contractors, for example. He reminded the commissioners that the county most likely will be competing with other local governments in the Tampa Bay region, “and there are finite resources and finite capabilities.”

This is the cover of the report, officially released on March 14. Image courtesy Sarasota County

As the county’s Emergency Services Department staff learned after Irma, Fugate said, many of those debris collection contractors “oversold their capabilities.”

As he came to the close of his remarks, Fugate commended county leaders for undertaking an after-action review that encompassed the entire community response. “Very rarely” is that done, he said.

Finally, Fugate stressed to the commissioners, “Sarasota County did not get hit by a land-falling hurricane.” If it had, they would have been dealing with quite a number of other issues instead of an after-action review, he indicated.

No one knows at this point what the forecast will be for the 2018 hurricane season, which begins June 1, Fugate said. The commissioners need to hold the county administration accountable for keeping the county’s disaster response team “ready to go,” he added. “Hope’s not a strategy. Your leadership is key.”