Officials say shelters and roads need improvement.
Not that anyone wanted to go through Hurricane Irma, but Manatee County is trying to use the experience to be more prepared for the next major weather-related event.
That has been the objective of the county's commissioners and emergency management team, which met in December at a workshop to consider how to be better prepared.
"There is no magic answer or figurative silver bullet in preparing for the next hurricane," said Sherilyn Burris, the chief of Emergency Management for the county. "It is important to remember that each storm is different, brings different hazards, and has different impacts to our community.
"The same storm track and wind speed category will likely bring different problems than any previous storm. I encourage folks to think with generalizations, timeframes, ranges, and continuums instead of preparing for one particular situation."
Burris said Manatee County wants to be better, especially in disseminating information. The county plans to unveil a new website in the next few months that is more user friendly, making it easier to navigate when disaster strikes.
The type of information passed to the citizens during Hurricane Irma could have been more helpful, Burris said. The county wants to disperse information that will give citizens more direction, instead of just telling them to evacuate.
A major problem for Manatee County during Hurricane Irma was it didn't expect the flow of those seeing shelters.
"The state performs an evacuation behavioral study," Burris said. "It is pretty systematic. The behavioral study said to expect 4,000 (seeking shelter in Manatee County from a hurricane). We saw 25,000."
Burris said many of those seeking shelter would have been better off staying at their home.
"At the shelter, you are on the floor and you may or may not have electricity," she said. "We need to get people who don't need to evacuate to stay at home."
Most of all, Burris said her department has to focus on more education on how to prepare for a disaster situation, and even more important, how to prepare for the post-disaster period when they might be without food, gas or electricity.
"People need to make plans for any given time frame for living without electricity," she said.
Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said Manatee County still falls short when it comes to being adequately prepared for a major hurricane.
"We have a long ways to go to be as prepared as we can be," she said.
Baugh, who was part of a Board of County Commissioners work session Dec. 19, said two areas of emergency preparedness need immediate attention — shelters and evacuation.
"If the people south of us evacuate before we do, by the time Manatee County declares evacuation, the roads are packed," Baugh said. "Our citizens need other routes."
Baugh said State Road 70 needs to be widened to four lanes across the state. She has been working with the Florida Department of Transportation to get a section of S.R. 70 widened to four lanes from Lorraine Road to County Road 675 near Myakka City. She said the citizens can't afford to wait years for such a project to be accomplished.
Another area Baugh said needed improvement was the availability of shelters. Baugh said the county needs more shelters, especially with the population boom. All the shelters used during Hurricane Irma were School District of Manatee County schools.
"We had a wonderful school administration that got the schools open (as shelters) and managed them," she said. "But we don't have enough."
When the county builds new schools, Baugh said they all should be strengthened to withstand high category hurricanes. Part of that problem is figuring out who is going to pay the extra cost of construction. Baugh said the School District of Manatee County wanted the county to pay for the new high school in Parrish to be "heartened."
At the workshop, other shelter solutions were discussed, such as considering to make sure new facilities, such as a planned library for Lakewood Ranch, are built to withstand substantial hurricanes and therefore could be used as shelters. Other county facilities, such as the John Marble gymnasium, the Sheriff's Office Property and Evidence building and the water reclamation facility administration building, could be used as shelters in the future.
Other ideas discussed at the meeting included having county employees able to shelter in safe environments close to the county so they could work until the last possible moment in case of a hurricane, and making sure workers needed in the aftermath, such as linemen, can shelter locally so they are available to go right to work.
Victor Kline, a longtime Lakewood Ranch Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) member, said the county should realize it failed to adequately use his volunteer organization during Hurricane Irma. CERT is made up of volunteers who provide information to emergency management during a weather disaster. All CERT members are licensed ham radio operators.
However, Kline said Burris has given the impression she would like to see CERT go away. He said Manatee County had no ham radio operating during Hurricane Irma.
"We monitor the ham radio channels," Kline said. "Sarasota County was active, and Manatee County was not."
Kline said Burris' main concern about working with the volunteer group is liability. However, he said the county embraces the Salvation Army and Red Cross and CERT is a similar nonprofit. "The county has levels of separation," he said.
The county has six CERT programs, Central Park, Lakewood Ranch, University Park, Waterlefe, Trailer Estates and Greenfield Plantation. Kline said CERT could have been an important asset to the county during Hurricane Irma.
"It's for the benefit of first responders," he said. "They often don't know which roads are flooded and which are not. Public Works doesn't know where to send trucks."
CERT members are trained to compile information about road blockages and street damage, which can be relayed to Emergency Management's operations center.
"We were not integrated into the disaster response," he said. "We received minimal information. There was no formal effort to coordinate with the CERT team."
Burris said there was no effort to shut out CERT during Hurricane Irma. "A ham radio is used if all else fails," she said. "We never lost telephone communication or the internet."
She sdded that CERT "fits perfectly into what we are doing. They are an asset."
Baugh, however, said she sees a disconnect between CERT and Emergency Management and that it needs to be addressed. "Lakewood Ranch residents pay a property tax for CERT," she said. "But they were never contacted (by Emergency Management during Hurricane Irma)."
While repairing the relationship between Emergency Management and CERT is something that could be done in the near future, building more shelters and escape routes will take time. In that respect, the county might not be much better off to deal with a significant hurricane in 2018.
However, Burris said big gains can be made through education.
She emphasized the key to all the preparation is for residents to plan and to take responsibility for their decisions made during a weather event.
"Each family needs to have their own answers based on their available resources, their support network of friends and family, whether their home is structurally sound and their financial resources," Burris said. "Knowing one's hurricane evacuation level is the start, but residents must continue their personal plan by planning for their family to evacuate if told to do so. How will you evacuate? Where will you go? When will you leave? How long can you can there? Where will you stay if you can't return home?"
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