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Driven by memories of Andrew

The county's emergency management director has lobbied for the creation of special needs shelters.

By ALISA ULFERTS

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 28, 2000


Michele Baker remembers the panicked phone calls from elderly Miami Beach residents hours before Hurricane Andrew struck in 1992. Many needed medical care and were begging the county to help them evacuate.

photo
[Times photo: Dan McDuffie]
Gov. Jeb Bush chats with Michele Baker, Pasco's emergency management director, at the Governor's Hurricane Conference on Wednesday in Tampa.
"They were trapped without power. They were trapped without air conditioning. They were trapped without elevators," recalled Baker, who was Miami-Dade's chief hurricane coordinator at the time.

At that late hour, Baker had little choice but to instruct those answering the phones: "Tell them we are sorry, but we cannot come pick them up."

That experience sparked what has become a career-long interest for Baker, Pasco's emergency management director: establishing special needs shelters for people who need care during disasters but have nowhere else to go.

On Wednesday, years of work paid off for Baker when Gov. Jeb Bush signed a law requiring home health care companies, hospices and nurse registries to note in a patient's chart where he or she will go during an evacuation -- and how the companies plan to continue caring for the patient.

In some cases, that could mean following patients into public medical shelters. Hospitals and nursing homes already must develop plans to care for patients during emergencies. But residents who are recovering at home, or who need help with daily tasks such as bathing, often don't get the care they need during evacuations, and efforts to get volunteers to staff shelters have fallen short, Baker said.

Baker had worked for three years on the measure, which passed as part of a larger bill designed to increase the number of shelter spaces throughout the state.

Bush signed the bill on the opening day of the 14th annual Governor's Hurricane Conference, held at the Tampa Convention Center just one week before the June 1 start of hurricane season.

After the ceremony, Bush joked with Baker and told her that her next assignment was to focus on developing shelters that accept pets.

"My mother would leave us behind before she left the pets," Bush said.

Baker said she answered:"Yes, sir."

Diving into her career

Baker, 38, fell into emergency management by accident. After graduating from Miami Palmetto Senior High School in Miami, Baker served a year in the Air Force and then joined the reserves.

She briefly worked as a flight attendant for a seaplane company.

"Part of my emergency kit contained a bathing suit," Baker said.

Whenever the plane made an unexpected landing on water, Baker would don the suit and jump into the waves. The pilots were not allowed to leave the plane, which left Baker as the only person able to hook up the plane to the boat that would tow the party to shore.

After a year of that, Baker landed a temporary job in the emergency management office of Miami-Dade County, at the time named Dade County. The director was a friend of her family. Within months Baker had learned enough to be promoted. She became the disaster coordinator in charge of responding to an accident at a nearby nuclear plant.

During the 10 years Baker spent with Miami-Dade's emergency management department, she earned a bachelor's degree in business administration from Florida International University and worked her way up.

By the time Andrew hit in August 1992, Baker was the lead coordinator for the department, responsible for preparing for and reacting to the devastating storm. Eight years later, Baker still recalls the weekend the storm hit.

The Friday before the hurricane struck, Baker said, the storm was not expected to develop, so she was told to check back in Monday. Saturday afternoon Baker was paged. Things had changed.

She spent that night -- and several more -- at the county's emergency operations center, a building designed to withstand a nuclear blast. By 8 a.m. Sunday the county ordered an evacuation for a level 3 storm. One hour later that evacuation had been upgraded to a category 4 -- along with the storm.

"The rest of the day is a blur," Baker said.

Baker's husband, Bill Baker, said he did what he could to ease things for his wife.

"When she got home every night from Andrew, dinner was on the table and a pail of hot water with Epsom salts was under the table for her feet," said Bill Baker, a manager of a Zephyrhills Radio Shack store.

The storm didn't cost Baker her house -- as it did so many others -- but it did cost Baker her driver's license.

She'd gotten a speeding ticket and planned to go to driving school Sept. 4. But the August storm kept her working between 16 and 18 hours a day for the next three months, so Baker forgot about her appointment until she was notified in November that her license had been suspended.

She paid a fine and her license was reinstated.

"I had to do my job," Baker said.

Getting a jump on the job

Shortly after Andrew, Baker learned Pasco needed someone to head up its emergency management office.

She applied, interviewed and was hired.

Baker hadn't even started work yet when the first storm hit.

"The one thing we joke about with her is that she brought all these storms with her," County Administrator John Gallagher said.

It was March 1993, and Baker was in Atlanta on vacation, resting up before she started her new job. But then the winter "no-name" storm threatened Pasco's coast. Without hesitating, Baker cut her vacation short and started work early.

"'That's dedication," Gallagher said.

In her seven years with Pasco County, Baker has consistently earned raises -- her annual salary has steadily increased to more than $50,000 -- and praise from her bosses and her staff for her energy and attention to detail.

Those traits characterize her at home, too, said her husband.

"The spice rack is in alphabetical order," Bill Baker said.

She started the fight to get medical needs shelters staffed while she was head of the Florida Emergency Preparedness Association, the professional organization of emergency management officers. Baker also was chairwoman of a statewide task force set up several years ago to figure out how best to staff shelters.

The result of her efforts with Amy Merrill, legislative aide to Rep. Mark Ogles, R-Bradenton, was the bill that Ogles sponsored, the Legislature passed and Bush signed on Wednesday.

It was the third time Baker had tried. Last year, the House of Representatives passed the bill, but the session ended before the Senate could vote on it.

"The hardest thing I had to do was call Michele in the last five minutes of session and tell her it didn't pass," Merrill said. "I was crying."

So what does Baker do when not preparing for disaster or studying for exams?

"Karaoke," her husband said. "If she gets into a contest, she wins."

When asked about his wife's achievements, Bill Baker said they were not surprising, given his wife's nature.

"The residents of Pasco County are blessed to have a person who has such a keen interest in their well-being."

-- Alisa Ulferts covers Pasco County government. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6244 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6244. Her e-mail address is ulferts@sptimes.com.

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