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Sarasota Thursday, Mar. 15, 2018 3 years ago

After-Irma report helps guide county's planning for future hurricanes

Among the top priorities in the Hurricane Irma after-action review: shelter operations, public communication and employee training.
by: Cassidy Alexander Staff Writer

The Hurricane Irma after-action review is here.

The 72-page report examines everything Sarasota County and all the relevant organizations did during the emergency prompted by Hurricane Irma. It highlights what was done right, and what can improve in future emergencies.

Former director of FEMA Craig Fugate oversaw the review, and although he and three peer reviewers had many suggestions, he said the county should be proud of how it handled the storm.

Craig Fugate

“The team you built before the hurricane hit is your biggest success,” he told commissioners. “You have the team that meets the challenge when it happens. Now let’s tweak it.”

Here are the largest areas the county will focus on in the coming months, in preparation for the next hurricane season that starts June 1.

Hurricane Evacuation Center Planning

During Irma, the county tried to only open specific shelters. There were designated pet-friendly and special-needs shelters, and evacuees had to know which ones served their needs. There weren’t any shelters in the south part of the county and those residents had to find their own way to the open shelters.

According to the after-action review, emergency managers should have opened as many shelters as possible as early as possible. All shelters should be pet-friendly. There should be  a transportation plan in place to get people to shelters that are far away from them if nothing else is available. Some of the shelters needed generators, or more security. There has to be a reliable way for the county to communicate with people in shelters. Post-storm shelters must be identified so schools can reopen more quickly after the threat has passed.

Public Education Programs

Hurricane Irma was the first major storm that many people in the county had seen, and the messaging from the county wasn’t always clear. Terms like “mandatory evacuation” and “all-clear” were ambiguous, and caused confusion.

More education before the storm would have helped alleviate this. In particular, re-entry after the storm was confusing for people who had evacuated. Rather than issuing an all-clear after county employees had conducted a thorough review of the areas, the review suggests using a color-code system so people know what they’re risking if they return.

Additionally, educating the public on their evacuation zones and shelters nearby before an emergency would be a big help.

Employee Planning and Preparation

Fugate emphasized the importance of using the county’s workforce to the fullest extent. During an emergency, he said, everyone should be part of responding to that emergency regardless of their regular job.

The review recommends identifying and training people for emergency roles before a major hurricane. In particular, the county should consider using more of its own employees to staff shelters by training people well in advance, giving them a digital refresher course closer to an actual emergency and putting people who already work together at the same shelter.

EOC Processes and Information Sharing

The county relied heavily on social media to get messaging out about the storm, which was effective for some residents. However, Fugate recommended the county consider alternative forms of communication as well, and emphasized the importance of many voices having one message.

It was also recommended that some messaging be prepared in advance, when possible, so the county doesn’t use resources that aren’t necessary during an emergency.

Emergency Contracts

Although Sarasota County had contracts in place for things like debris removal and food services before the storm, there’s still room to improve. Fugate suggested having stronger language to hold contractors accountable and more likely to honor the contracts and do work for the highest bidder.

The review also suggests pre-establishing contracts for medical services and security personnel, who can assist county employees.

Read the full review here. 

I’m Cassidy. I cover news in Sarasota County, Siesta Key and the schools, plus community events if they involve dogs. I’m a Florida native, and University of North Florida graduate with degrees in journalism and graphic design. Reach me at 941-366-3468 ext. 304.

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