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Hurricane Charley

Emergency responders shore up weak areas

People didn't evacuate all mobile homes. County shelters weren't fully equipped. And helping out in Polk County drove home the storm's lessons.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
Published August 22, 2004

When Hurricane Charley seemed to be heading toward Hernando County, J.J. Morrison, chief of the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District, felt confident that local emergency responders were prepared.

"In going to Polk County and seeing the devastation that far inland, I don't feel we were as ready as we should have been," Morrison said.

He is not alone.

Although Hernando officials were pleased with how smoothly the existing plans went into effect, they also discovered holes big and small that need plugging before the next major storm warning.

"We are trying to develop more contingency plans," said Tom Leto, the county's emergency management officer. "We have to take it to the next step. We haven't done that."

Two items topped most lists.

First, the need for a more secure emergency operations center, which is under design, became even more apparent, Leto and others said. Second, leaders agreed they must do more to convince mobile home dwellers that they are not safe in their homes if a hurricane blows through.

"One thing that really concerned me was, we had really mixed results on the evacuation," Hernando County Fire Rescue Chief Mike Nickerson said. "The coastal area was fine, and most mobile homes, too. But we had some (mobile home communities) with less than 50 percent (leaving)."

Nickerson said he, Leto and others will visit homeowner associations to stress the importance of heading to a shelter or another safe haven as soon as the evacuation order comes.

Getting the order out is easier than ever, Sheriff Richard Nugent said, because the county uses an automated phone system rather than relying on drive-by loudspeaker announcements.

"We have to get past the complacency we saw with people," said Nugent, who told of seeing children playing outside their mobile homes more than three hours after the evacuation announcement. "I'm just concerned people aren't taking this serious."

Leto, handling his first significant storm since taking over the department, said he would promote a "host home" program that might help people feel more comfortable with leaving their homes behind.

Clubs, churches and other organizations would assess their membership to determine who lives in an evacuation zone and who does not. Then, they would try to pair families with like interests - such as religion, smoking preference or love of pets - so each evacuee would have a welcome place to go.

"This is the way Hernando County citizens can look out for one another," Leto said. "We probably should implement that and push that much harder than we have."

He also plans to press to add pet shelters, to meet residents' needs.

County purchasing director Jim Gantt, who oversaw emergency operations logistics, said there were other smaller items that also need attention.

"We don't have a lot of places to stockpile things in the county," Gantt said. "That's one of the problems."

As a result, when one of the shelters needed extra cots and blankets, shelter managers had to scramble to find them. If they had been in a central location, Gantt said, the response would have been quicker and simpler.

The school district has trained all of its administrators as shelter managers, district safety director Barry Crowley said. But it had been assigning them on a rotation to different shelters each storm.

"We think we may be better off to assign teams permanently and train them to a specific site," Crowley said.

Getting information to the public also did not take place as efficiently as possible, Nickerson said. The emergency center had some trouble getting reports to the news media, and the county did not use its own cable television station full time.

"We're looking forward next time to be able to better utilize Channel 19 to get information out," he said.

Waiting out a storm is perhaps the simple part, though. The recovery creates more demands.

County utilities director Kay Adams said the water and sewer system is in "pretty good" shape because the department made plans for an electrical loss leading up to the Y2K scare that never materialized. The department has purchased generators for most of its stations, she said.

It still needs a few mobile generators, though, Adams said. Perhaps the biggest concern is having enough fuel to run the generators if power remains out for a long time, she said.

Nugent said his department's Spring Hill office also would need a generator, if it survives.

Morrison said his visit to Polk County taught him that his department would need a variety of equipment to deal with a storm's aftermath.

"The chain saws we have aren't adequate for the job," he said. "We need to start stockpiling tires (for when trucks get flats from debris). These are the types of small things we learned."

When his team got to Polk, it was assigned to a part of the county it did not know. The Polk emergency center had maps for its own responders, but not for visitors, Morrison noted.

"We need to have more maps," he said.

Having fuel on hand also is key, Morrison said, echoing Adams. He explained the several engines and trucks that Spring Hill fire crews took to Polk were low on gas after the long drive, but the nearby gas stations were not operating.

"They had to come up with fuel for us before they could deploy us," he said.

Morrison also called for a stronger connection between the public and private sector, to make sure the government emergency staff knows where necessary equipment and supplies - such as front loaders and food - are located and that it has access to them, even after hours.

Leto agreed, and said some of those ties are being made. For instance, he said, the county made arrangements with Wal-Mart and the Christian Contractors Association for assistance, and to use their warehouses as staging areas.

"We didn't previously look too closely at that," Leto said. "But seeing what happened to our neighbors to the south, we decided to look at that in advance instead of doing it on the fly."

He also noted a need to help the county's small businesses plan for disaster survival. Federal studies have shown that 40 percent of small businesses never reopen after they are destroyed, and another 25 percent fail within two years.

"The key is to have a plan, think through it and prepare," he said. "We've got to have our businesses survive, because if they can't open, then the government has to step in and do the business."

When heading to help in Polk, Leto said one of his big questions was whether a smaller community such as Hernando could get the assistance it needs if several other, perhaps bigger, counties with greater needs also are hit.

"One of the things I saw was, if your county is organized and you have planned correctly, and you can stick your head out of the sand quickly, you can ask for help first. And guess what happens if you ask first? You get help first," he said.

To that end, Leto said, Hernando had prepared detailed lists of items and help it would need if a storm were to hit.

"I didn't send the list, but we were in a position to send the list," he said. "I was going to do it as the winds were licking the coast."

He said his department's staff has updated almost every plan the county has for emergency management, and more work remains in order to be ready.

Longtime county officials said Leto and his team, which emerged after a period of discord and almost total staff turnover, did an excellent job managing the storm operations and keeping the county prepared.

Still, they cautioned, no amount of planning can truly brace a community for the kind of devastation that Hernando avoided but Charlotte, De Soto, Polk and others did not.

"We think we've done a good job," said Adams, the utilities director. "Obviously, when you get hit and get put to the test, that's when you see how well you've done."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at 352 754-6115 or solochek@sptimes.com

[Last modified August 22, 2004, 01:25:20]


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