Evacuations of all people in vulnerable areas should be top priority with a hurricane looming, former FEMA administrator tells community leaders

Clear, simple communications also key to preventing serious injuries and deaths

Former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate addresses attendees at the after-action review session on Feb. 9. Rachel Hackney photo

When a major hurricane is bearing down on Sarasota County, local government leaders have to ensure that everyone in an area prone to storm surge has been evacuated, Craig Fugate, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administrator from 2009 to 2017, told about 85 community leaders on Feb. 9.

Simplified communications are a major key to preventing loss of life, Fugate pointed out during the final public meeting in Sarasota County’s after-action review of the community’s handling of Hurricane Irma in September 2017.

“The biggest killer is water: storm surge and rainfall,” Fugate stressed. “Wind is not a big killer.” During a major hurricane, he added, two-thirds of deaths are related to water. “The more people you evacuate, the better chance to keep your loss of life to a minimum.”

People need to know where shelters are well in advance of a storm, Fugate continued, and those shelters have to be able to withstand a powerful hurricane. Moving people in tropical-storm force winds should not be an option, he added. “Hope is not a strategy. We have to go for the maximum protection. … You don’t get a do-over.”

Hurricane Charley in 2004 strengthened from a Category 1 storm to a Category 4 in 24 hours, he pointed out. Hurricane Andrew in 1992 went from a Category 1 to a Category 5 in 48 hours.

The Mississippi coastline in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s strike in 2005, Fugate continued, reflected “a scorched-earth policy” as a result of the storm surge.

Fugate also pointed out that any new shelters should be built to withstand the most powerful storms. In the meantime, he said, community leaders should look for ways to retrofit facilities to make them stronger.

Moreover, Fugate emphasized, all shelters should be designated pet-friendly facilities, because people are going to show up with their animals. “Guess what? FEMA pays for that,” he added, including cleanup after a storm.

Craig Fugate speaks to an audience member during the group discussion period. Rachel Hackney photo

People with disabilities who do not need specialized medical care also should be encouraged to go to the shelter closest to them, Fugate told the audience. That simplifies the process for the public, as well.

As for evacuation zones: Fugate again recommended simplicity. The county has been using letters to designate areas for evacuation, he noted. Yet, many residents have no idea what letter applies to the area where they live, he added. For example, a Longboat Key resident might call the county Contact Center and ask, “What zone am I in?” The answer should be, “‘You’re in an evacuation zone!’ … Give them the geographical area” where evacuations have been ordered,” Fugate stressed. “Just take the approach that this may be their first hurricane and they are clueless.”

Likewise, Fugate continued, re-entry procedures should be simplified.

He suggested a color code system:

  • Green means “you can go back; it’s relatively safe, but you may not have power,” he said.
  • Yellow means “you may have roads washed out” and loss of other infrastructure, “but it’s your call.”
  • Red means conditions are unsafe, but, again, “It’s your call,” Fugate stressed. The recommendation is for the public to stay out of the area because of the conditions, he noted. Yet, if someone wants to try to salvage something, he added, the person should be allowed to do so as long as emergency responders make it clear, “‘We may not be able to get you if something goes wrong.’”

“You’re fighting a losing battle trying to tell people they can’t come back [to their homes and businesses],” Fugate said.

As for Irma, he pointed out, “You did not get hit by a major hurricane. You got ready for a major hurricane.”

Before Irma, Fugate pointed out, the county had handled a maximum of about 2,000 people in shelters. During Irma’s approach and strike, he added, the total was about 20,000. The fact that the community was able to handle that responsibility, he said, “is testament to the team that was built.”

However, in the 13 years between Hurricane Charley and Hurricane Irma, Fugate noted, preparation for a major storm had become less of an emphasis. He urged the County Commission to hold its administration and department directors accountable for maintaining relationships with leaders of the municipalities and others in the community to make preparation a matter of paramount importance.

Still, he said, ‘That team you guys built under the direction of the County Commission was what got you through this event. What you accomplished was pretty spectacular, all by itself.”

Fugate’s consulting work with community leaders to complete the after-action review has been funded by the Gulf Coast Community Foundation and the Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation. The after-action report will be presented to the County Commission on March 14, Rich Collins, the county’s emergency services director, explained during the Feb. 9 program at the Suncoast Technical College in Sarasota.

Preparations already underway

Sarasota Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie talks with County Administrator Jonathan Lewis before the meeting begins. Rachel Hackney photo

As approximately two-dozen community meetings have been taking place since November 2017, the county’s Emergency Services and Emergency Management staff members have been sitting in and taking notes in preparation for the 2018 hurricane season, Collins told the audience.

“We’re 17 weeks away from hurricane season right now,” he pointed out, referring to the traditional June 1 start of storm season.

First, Collins said, “We understand that we have a low-lying land issue and older buildings in the center of the county that have been problematic for shelters.”

One goal, he continued, is to identify a hardened building for a shelter that is in or close to the city of Venice. The county also has applied for a $1.5 million state grant, Collins noted, to enable it to conduct a thorough review of schools in the Venice area with an eye toward pursuing hurricane-hardening measures.

Additionally, Collins told the audience, county staff has been working with representatives of the Sarasota County School District and staff of the county’s municipalities on dealing with the need to make all shelters pet-friendly and to be able to open all designated shelters at one time, instead of staging the openings, as county staff did in advance of Irma’s strike.

Further, Collins pointed out, the team is working on a transportation plan to ensure that people who cannot drive to a shelter on their own will have options.

Yet other initiatives underway are planning for training exercises for the people who will man shelters, Collins said, and better preparation for the handling of public communications before, during and after a storm.

Alan Harris (left), Seminole County Emergency Management director, speaks to Ed McCrane (center), emergency management chief in Sarasota County, and Jonathon Lord, Flagler County Emergency Management director. Rachel Hackney photo

Further, he noted, staff members are meeting with representatives of Florida Power & Light Co. (FPL) on local government regulations regarding the trimming of vegetation.

Staff also is working with community leaders on how best to ensure people can buy groceries and do their banking, for example, after their power has been restored, he said.

The county has had notification, Collins added, that it will receive $8 million in mitigation grant funding to assist with a variety of projects to improve hurricane preparedness and response. The county will have to provide a 25% match, he said, but staff already has a list of ways to utilize the money.

Staff also has applied for a $1.5-million state grant to help ensure that every shelter has a backup generator to allow it to provide primary services to the people staying there, he said.

More recommendations

Along with former FEMA Administrator Fugate, three Florida emergency management directors have been working with Sarasota County staff and community leaders to review what went well during Irma and to offer suggestions about improvements.

During the Feb. 9 program, they also addressed the participants.

Jonathon Lord, emergency management director of Flagler County, reiterated Fugate’s recommendation that the county should open all shelters at one time, even though “that concept may seem daunting.”

Additionally, county staff should seek volunteers who can work at the shelters to supplement school district and county employees. Lord further stressed the need not only for initial training but also for refresher exercises — even in the form of videos or streaming content — that shelter workers would be able to review just before they had to report to their sites.

Manny Soto, emergency management director for the City of Orlando, talked about an issue that was of primary concern statewide: loss of electricity.

“Once we have power back on in our home, and the [air conditioning] is running and the refrigerator is running, the sense of normalcy kicks in,” he said. “All [people] care about is getting power back to their homes.”

Already, he pointed out FPL has been inspecting poles and power lines, but keeping vegetation trimmed “is a very difficult task in Florida,” because the weather fosters rapid growth.

After a storm is over, Soto continued, meters may be disconnected from homes, so power company employees may receive readings showing that electricity has been restored to a dwelling when that is not the case. Other means of remotely verifying the status of power service are under review, he added.

The county also needs to have a priority list for its sewer lift stations and traffic lights, so generators can be provided quickly after a storm has knocked out the electricity. Additionally, he suggested that the county and the cities work on advance agreements with companies that can provide emergency generators. “Having pre-established contracts … is critical.”

Sarasota County Emergency Services Director Rich Collins (left) chats with Manny Soto, emergency management director of the City of Orlando. Rachel Hackney photo

Finally, Soto suggested collaboration between local governments and FPL, so crews clearing downed trees, for example, are not hampered by worries about whether a dangling power line is energized, for example.

The first teams — law enforcement officers, fire department personnel and county Public Works Department employees — who headed out after the storm “could have done an even better job,” Nancy Detert, chair of the County Commission said, if they had had an FPL representative with them “to tell them what to do with the downed power line.”

Kim Sprague, distribution operations manager for FPL — who was participating in the meeting — explained that the company did provide some personnel to the teams that made the first forays through the county to assess damage after Irma hit. “We don’t have enough people,” she said, to provide someone to assist every team with handling damaged power infrastructure. Instead, she suggested that FPL conduct classes to train local government employees in dealing with such situations.

Finally, Seminole County Emergency Management Director Alan Harris added his comments on the communication issue. He used the example of “Ms. Stanley,” modeled upon Seminole County’s 77-year-old “Ms. Johnson,” who has to use a wheelchair, needs oxygen and has no family in the state. She also has two cats she would not leave at home, he pointed out, and she would have to have transportation to the shelter.

Moreover, Harris said, since she adopted the cats from Animal Services, she is a frequent visitor to the county’s Animal Services webpage.

“Ms. Johnson doesn’t exist,” he continued, but his emergency management team makes plans with such an individual in mind.

When a storm is approaching, he pointed out, “people will gravitate toward certain [web] pages.” Therefore, he pointed to the necessity of “providing the same information on all pages and all platforms.”

Employees of the county and the municipalities, along with agencies such as the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, should make certain they are putting out the same information through traditional media, online and through social media platforms, Harris stressed.

Working groups

Km Sprague of Florida Power & Light Co. (in the light blue shirt) takes notes as people at her table discuss issues related to Irma. Rachel Hackney photo

After the initial presentations on Feb. 9, representatives of the local governments, the foundations, faith-based organizations and the school district worked in groups of seven — at 12 tables — to address what they felt were critical issues for improvements. Communications and simplified re-entry systems were among the top concerns noted in reports provided by each table.

County Commission Chair Detert drew laughter when she said that she complained to the members of her group about the heavy reliance on Twitter to convey important messages. “I’m from Venice; we don’t Tweet.”

However, she continued, former County Administrator Tom Harmer, who was at her table, reminded her that the news media uses Twitter often, so it is “very, very important.” Word goes out quickly to reporters, she added, who then relay the latest information to their readers and TV viewers.

The table participants’ reports will be made part of the final after-action review material provided to the County Commission.

1 thought on “Evacuations of all people in vulnerable areas should be top priority with a hurricane looming, former FEMA administrator tells community leaders”

  1. “…other initiatives underway are planning for training exercises for the people who will man shelters, Collins said, and better preparation for the handling of public communications before, during and after a storm.” The importance of this element would be clearer if the “Review” of the county’s response to Hurricane Irma set forth the dismal facts surrounding the absence of county staffing at certain shelters, along with a pattern of failed generators and other equipment, particularly at shelters where elderly and patients with serious medical conditions were directed to go. Clearly the County was woefully underprepared for this emergency. Shelter were opened late or not at all, communications about openings, and what would make sense to bring, were not on the EOC website where one would think this information, all pretty standard, could be posted months in advance. People ought to know in advance what they can expect at a shelter – with or without pets, how sleeping is arranged, etc. It should all be laid out clearly now, so that in the event of a serious emergency, the county would not need to do everything as if for the first time. Finally, a question: Is a complete, honest report of what happened during Irma to be made available to the public?

    Editor’s Note: From the article: “The after-action report will be presented to the County Commission on March 14, Rich Collins, the county’s emergency services director, explained during the Feb. 9 program at the Suncoast Technical College in Sarasota.”

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