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If storm hits, who's the boss?

The Tampa mayor wants to talk with Hillsborough County officials to develop a plan to coordinate and manage an emergency.

Published September 14, 2005

TAMPA - When it comes to talking hurricanes, the mayor and county administrator will have some company.

The County Commission voted Tuesday to ensure that commission Chairman Jim Norman is present at any such meeting between Mayor Pam Iorio and county Administrator Pat Bean.

"The whole idea is to get people to talk," Commissioner Mark Sharpe said afterward. The commissioners wanted to see to it "that if people are talking, you want as many people at the table as possible."

Commissioner Kathy Castor, who voted against the idea, saw it differently.

She called it "micromanaging" and "unconscionable."

"That is the kind of bureaucracy and turf battle that people are fed up with," Castor said. "You think we would have learned from Hurricane Katrina."

The decision follows a phone call by Iorio to Bean over Labor Day weekend to suggest the two meet to talk about disaster preparedness.

Bean agreed, and they scheduled a meeting for Sept. 8. But after Iorio announced there would be a news conference after the meeting, Bean canceled at the last minute, saying she needed to meet with a county commissioner. She rescheduled for Tuesday morning but canceled that meeting, too.

Questioned Tuesday, Bean vowed to work with other local officials, even as she asserted that the buck will stop with her.

State law "clearly puts the county governments in command of emergency management," Bean, the county administrator, said Tuesday. "We are the ones in charge."

She said she would seek a meeting with "all the mayors," referring to Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace.

Iorio could not be reached about the commission's vote to insist that their chairman be present. She said earlier that she was trying to work with the county "in the spirit of total cooperation.

"If anything catastrophic hits our community, we've all got to work together," Iorio said. "It seems like a common-sense approach to sit down and talk with the county. I don't see any down side."

Sharpe, in a telephone interview Tuesday, agreed with the mayor that all levels of government need to cooperate.

But he said the chairman is the elected official who represents the broader county as a whole, and should be included in any discussions.

By having the county chairman present at meetings with the mayor and the county administrator, the key players who have to make decisions for the broader population of the county will be present.

"You would have individuals who would be there when a crisis takes place that have met before," he said.

"The idea is not to have smaller subsets together to avoid mistakes."

In the meantime, Iorio has told the city's police and fire rescue chiefs to develop more proactive evacuation procedures. The county plan calls for HARTline buses to run special routes to hurricane shelters at no charge to riders.

But not everyone knows where the bus stops are or can easily access them. Iorio said buses should go directly to the doorsteps of people who need them most.

Hurricane Katrina showed the difficulties in getting people to leave their homes when a storm looms. When evacuation orders came last year during Hurricane Charley, most people did not leave Central Park Village, a public housing complex at the edge of downtown Tampa.

Tampa, with its many flood zones, is likely to be hit particularly hard by a major storm.

"That's what I had wanted to talk about, and hopefully we'll have the opportunity in the future," Iorio said.

County and city officials have clashed before during emergencies. At one point last summer, when it seemed Hurricane Ivan could threaten Tampa, Iorio wanted to use the county's emergency operations center media room to address the public. The city of Tampa has its own emergency operations center, but it doesn't have a media room.

Bean turned down Iorio after conferring with commissioners, who said it was important for residents to get their information from one source.

"State law places that responsibility with the county," commissioner Jan Platt said at the time. "If every mayor were out there giving their version of disaster protocol, it would be chaos. That request was completely out of line."

Commissioner Ronda Storms suggested Iorio was trying to muscle in on some good television time.

Hoping to quell any bureaucratic wrestling matches, City Council member Rose Ferlita requested on Thursday that someone from Iorio's office research how the city and county can better cooperate during emergencies.

Ferlita said there seemed to be confusion about who was in charge during last year's hurricane season, with Bean appearing on television at the county's emergency operations center and Iorio finding other ways to reach the public.

Ferlita said the county should take the lead.

"Sometimes there is leadership in following," Ferlita said. "I hope that's the direction the mayor is going in."

That aside, Bean insisted Tuesday that Hillsborough County sits in a much better position than New Orleans to handle a major storm.

For one, there's that county plan to use school buses and HARTline buses to get people out of harm's way.

Officials also held a hurricane preparedness forum for Spanish-speaking residents this year and currently are holding similar forums to target low-income, disadvantaged and elderly residents.

Unlike in New Orleans, the lower-income residents in Hillsborough tend to live on higher ground, while more affluent residents occupy the evacuation areas near the waterfront.

No matter what, Bean said, the preparation will press on.

"There's no plan anywhere I know of that is 100 percent foolproof," she said. "But we can always learn from other people's misfortunes."

[Last modified September 14, 2005, 06:51:05]

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