Final report on Sarasota County’s response to Irma to be delivered to County Commission March 14

‘After-action review’ has determined a number of areas needing improvement, including communications about evacuation zones and shelters

This is the National Hurricane Center forecast for Irma as of 5 p.m. on Sept. 7, 2017. Image from the NHC

On March 14, almost exactly six months after Hurricane Irma struck Florida, county, school district and municipal leaders in Sarasota County will hear a final report about what went well, what did not and what procedures should be implemented to improve the community’s response to a major disaster.

Craig Fugate, former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) — who also served as Florida’s emergency management director from 2001-2009 — will offer his remarks on the “after-action review” during the afternoon session of the March 14 County Commission meeting. That will be held at the County Administration Center located at 1660 Ringling Blvd. in downtown Sarasota. The session will begin at 1:30 p.m., with Fugate’s presentation the first item on the agenda following Open to the Public.

Fugate’s consulting work with community leaders to complete the review has been funded by the Gulf Coast Community Foundation and the Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation.

Fugate provided a preview of his findings during a Feb. 9 gathering of local government and foundation leaders, as well as representatives of the Sarasota County School Board.

Along with Fugate, three other emergency management leaders have been involved in the review: Alan Harris, chief administrator of Seminole County’s Emergency Management Office; Jonathan Lord, emergency management director of Flagler County; and Manny Soto, emergency management director for the City of Orlando.

Alan Harris. Image courtesy Sarasota County

During a March 8 conference call with members of the news media, Harris pointed to a number of findings that he and Fugate referenced during the Feb. 9 meeting.

Making sure the necessary information goes out to the public “across the board” is one key recommendation in the final report, Harris said.

The example he used during his Feb. 9 presentation was “Ms. Stanley,” who, at age 77, has to use a wheelchair, needs oxygen, has no family in the state but does have two cats she adopted from Animal Services. Ms. Stanley, he pointed out, often visits the Animal Services website, but she pays no attention to other media. “People gravitate towards their specific page or [computer] screen,” he emphasized on March 8.

Therefore, the Animal Services homepage should display the uniform message the county’s Emergency Services Department has provided, with all the details residents need to know as a major storm approaches. All updates should be published widely and featured on every county department’s webpage, from the page for the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office to the Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department homepage, Harris explained. Likewise, that information should be provided to all broadcast media and put out via the county’s Twitter and other social media accounts.

Given the increasing growth of the latter, Harris said, “I think it’s going to continue to be more and more of a challenge” to make sure every platform is utilized. “I think it’s going to be an area of improvement forever.”

Yet another primary focus, Harris noted, will involve the “first-in teams,” who travel throughout the county after a storm hits, working to clear roads and restore services. They need to know how to deal with damaged utility equipment. Power companies may not have enough personnel to assist with all teams, Harris said. However Kim Sprague, distribution manager for Florida Power & Light Co. suggested during the Feb. 9 meeting that the company could help train county employees, so they would know how to handle downed power lines, for example, without having power company representatives riding along with them.

Yet another emphasis, Harris continued on March 8, is the necessity of training county employees to handle multiple responsibilities, including how to man shelters.

“Volunteerism is down during times of disaster,” Harris pointed out, because people want to be with their families. In 2004, he continued, when Hurricane Charley was headed toward Florida, Seminole County “staffed every single one of [its] shelters with volunteers.”

Yet, during Irma’s approach, when Sarasota County was preparing to open shelters, he continued, no volunteers were available to assist at even one of those facilities.

County Emergency Management and Emergency Services staff members discuss Hurricane Irma scenarios on Sept. 5, 2017 at the Sarasota County Emergency Operations Center. Image courtesy Sarasota County Emergency Management via Twitter

“We are public servants,” he added. Emergency management personnel will have to do a better job of training other county employees how to handle all sorts of responsibilities. Being a county employee, he added, means “not just working in the library or the parks.”

Harris praised a Sarasota County program that requires every employee to register in a county database, including his or her contact information, and then update that information annually. During emergencies, he said, employees are directed to take on specific roles that may be completely unrelated to their regular jobs — including helping man a shelter. About three years ago, Harris noted, Seminole County adopted that program. It is one of Sarasota County’s greatest strengths, he added.

Evacuation zones and shelter challenges

Another critical change Harris noted — which Fugate emphasized on Feb. 9 — will be the elimination of the use of zones to alert people about evacuations. “We thought we were pretty good with all this terminology,” Harris said; “maybe not so much.”

Instead of calling for evacuations in Zone A or B, he said, Emergency Management leaders need to tell people that if they live in specific areas, they should leave.

Sarasota Police Department officers work on meal service for members of the public at the Brookside Middle School shelter during the storm period. Image from SPD via Twitter

He also noted that one of the biggest revelations of the after-action review was that, in Southwest Florida, some facilities that used to be available as shelters no longer are suitable for that purpose because they are in potential storm surge areas. That change is a product of more recent floodplain mapping, he indicated. As a result, people need to be told, “‘Your shelter may not be down the street or around the corner.’”

He added that he has had to deal with “evacuating people in the middle of a hurricane, and that’s not a fun experience.”

Collier County, he noted, has very few shelters that can be used because of concerns about storm surge. As a result, he said, that “will put an additional strain on Sarasota County.”

For that matter, Harris said, emergency managers are realizing that the situation in Southwest Florida is going to put more stress on Central Florida to shelter evacuating residents in advance of a storm like Irma, which was expected to affect much of the state. The metropolitan Orlando area — including Seminole and Orange counties — will need to be able to handle far more residents than in the past, he said. “We need to do better at regional coordination.”

Spaceship Earth is an attraction at Epcot Center. Image from chensiyuan via Wikimedia Commons

The State of Florida also will need to provide more assistance, he said. During an evacuation that will encompass many areas of the state, the Florida Department of Transportation can provide numbers of vehicles on specific routes, indicating where the drivers are heading. “All that data is available,” Harris noted. “They just need to push it down a little bit better.”

Additionally, Harris continued, the after-action review found the importance of “managing expectations.” For example, he said, Sarasota County ended up clearing almost 300,000 cubic yards of debris after Irma struck. Yet, the average person cannot grasp what that means, he pointed out. Therefore, the recommendation will be to provide comparisons the public can understand.

If a person hears that the amount of debris could fill four structures the size of Spaceship Earth at Walt Disney World’s Epcot Center, he said, that makes a big difference. “Four of those?” the person thinks, he added. “That’s a lot!”