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Storm plan vital even in safest spots of Lakewood Ranch

Side of Ranch: Jay Heater

Bob Smith, the county's director of public safety, takes the main podium in the Emergency Operations Center. "If I'm in here, it's really bad," he says.
Bob Smith, the county's director of public safety, takes the main podium in the Emergency Operations Center. "If I'm in here, it's really bad," he says.
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I never really think about them, except when I step directly on one barefoot.

The strip that runs along my lanai windows used to lock in my hurricane shudders.

Out of sight, out of mind.

Jay Heater
Jay Heater

Sherilyn Burris, the chief of emergency management for Manatee County, knows it is much the same for many who live in her county. Nobody really likes to think about emergency storm situations.

Make that double for those who live in Lakewood Ranch, much of which sits in a low threat zone when it comes to flooding or storm surge.

Burris said her strategy, therefore, is to inform each resident as if that person were her mother. "I would want my family and friends to be safe," she said.

Low threat or not, she urges people in the Lakewood Ranch area to have a plan, just as someone living near the Manatee River would.

On July 27, Burris was preaching safety during a Manatee County Emergency Management outreach program held at the Emergency Operations Center in Bradenton. Even if Lakewood Ranch residents aren't first in line when it comes to storm surge danger, they can get hammered by the wind or a tornado that is spawned by a hurricane.

Of what if if you are medically dependent on electricity and the power goes out for a week?

"Be sure you can be self-sufficient for seven days," she said.

If you live a very low threat area, you might be yawning right about now? You've heard these safety types before. They get all riled up over nothing.

A couple of decades ago, I experienced a great example of our indifference toward storm warnings. I was visiting Daytona Beach in May, at a time when hurricanes aren't very likely. Even so, the reports alerted people they should abandon Daytona Beach and head inland.

Being from California, I was more used to the sudden impact type of natural disasters, earthquakes. So in experiencing what would be my first hurricane, I figured they were no big deal — in terms of personal safety — because people would have plenty of warning to get out of the storm's path.

But they didn't. As I carried my suitcases from my hotel room on the beach to the car, I looked out as literally hundreds of people were playing on the beach, the sky still sunny. I asked a few if they were leaving. No, I was told, it wasn't going to be that bad.

It is easy to understand Burris' job isn't easy.

"Unfortunately, I have to scare people into paying attention some times," Burris said.

How does she accomplish that one? "I show them video of Hurricane Katrina."

Kelly French, the director of community relations for the Salvation Army, has another example. She talks about Hurricane Charley in 2004 which crushed Arcadia, supposedly less at risk in a safer area farther inland.

"They weren't worried about Hurricane Charley," French said. "They should have been."

Fortunately, some people in the area do worry about storms. Burris often is invited by homeowners associations or nonprofits in the Lakewood Ranch area to talk about being ready for natural disasters. She uses all the tools at her disposal.

She talks about having a plan.

On July 28, just a walk through the Emergency Operations Center offered a dose of reality and the need for a plan. A big conference room had stations identified for key personnel. Fire. Military. Two for Law Enforcement. Volunteers. It went on and on.

Bob Smith, the county's director of public safety, said more than 150 emergency personnel would jam into the room if a substantial storm hit the area. "If you live in this county, take the time to look at the evacuation maps," he said, "They are on our website ("

The Emergency Operations Center is built to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, so our emergency workers should be able to help us through a significant storm. Doing our part to keep ourselves safe will ultimately help them do their job.

Manatee County spends a lot of time preparing for a 100-year storm it hopes won't come for another 100 years. Smith said every county employee has a task during a natural disaster. He said a bus driver could be working the call center or an executive might be out filling sand bags.

They spend a lot of time training.

Perhaps we should devote just a few minutes to making sure we have a plan ourselves. 

(County storm surge threat levels are available at Follow Manatee County on Facebook at and on Twitter, @ManateeGov.)





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