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Manatee County firefighters respond to Dorian's fury

Manatee County dodges powerful hurricane's path, but local firefighters form strike team to help those on east coast.

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It was 6:30 a.m. on Labor Day in Lakewood Ranch, and a stream of cars lined up at a Wawa's gas pumps while people went into the convenience store before they ran out ... of ice.

These people were headed for the beach, or a day of boating on the holiday.

Only a few days before, the lines at area gas stations and convenience stores were about stocking up on gas and water before the expected arrival of Hurricane Dorian. Fortunately for East County and the rest of the region, Dorian's path changed to a more northward movement and, by Aug. 31, Manatee County had de-escalated its Emergency Operations Center.

Dorian, which reached Category 5 status, had missed us.

But at the same time area residents were beginning their holiday activities, members of East Manatee Fire Rescue were heading toward the eye of the storm.

East Manatee Chief Lee Whitehurst goes over Hurricane Dorian response plans with  Deputy Chief Will Hall.
East Manatee Chief Lee Whitehurst goes over Hurricane Dorian response plans with Deputy Chief Will Hall.

The contingent from East Manatee joined six other fire departments at North River Fire Station 5 in Palmetto to form a convoy headed toward Orlando to be in position for deployment if needed because of Dorian's path just off the coast of Florida. Firefighters from East Manatee, the city of Bradenton, Cedar Hammock, Longboat Key, North River, Southern Manatee and West Manatee met on Labor Day at North River 5, had a brief meeting and then pulled out at 7:30 a.m. for the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando.

"I've never done something like this," said East Manatee engineer Mike Hamilton, who volunteered for the assignment. "They told us to prepare to be gone for 10 days. Right now, I'm just trying to wake up."

Hamilton kept the atmosphere light, but was aware a small shift to the west by Dorian could lead to incredible devastation. His wife, Kaci, was aware as well.

"She is worried like any wife would be," he said.

East Manatee firefighter Daniel Dunkum was calm and confident.

"We train and we prepare for stuff like this," he said. "And I like to help people."

East Manatee Chief Lee Whitehurst couldn't accompany his firefighters because he had been chosen to direct the response actions of his 10-county region, which runs south to Collier County, east to Okeechobee County and north to Osceola County. Florida's fire chiefs divided the state into seven regions for better responses following Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Whitehurst said the region was sending three strike teams, each made up of 28 members and five engines, to Orlando. Those strike teams also each had a technical rescue team. Various ambulance teams were sent to Orlando for staging along with Hazmat teams.

Although each team faced the possibility of being put into harm's way, Whitehurst said it wasn't hard finding volunteers.

"It's an honor," he said.

With Hurricane Matthew in 2016, Hurricane Irma in 2017, and Hurricane Michael in 2018, Whitehurst said the state's firefighters are unfortunately getting a lot of experience.

"And the chiefs send the cream of the crop," he said.

None of the firefighters who headed to Orlando have been assigned a specific duty.

"The duty is yet to be determined," Whitehurst said. "They been trained to meet the unknown. Hopefully, they will just be sitting in Orlando and will have nothing to do. But when they went during Hurricane Michael, they worked 24-7."

Fire officials in Manatee County monitored Hurricane Dorian and became more concerned as it grew in intensity to a Category 5. Although forecasts started showing it would veer north, they had to be vigilant.

"A 20-mile (shift) can mean the world," Whitehurst said. "It could be catastrophic."

Besides the four firefighters assigned to East Manatee's Engine 641, Deputy Chief Will Hall was headed to Orlando to help coordinate efforts.

Firefighters gather for instructions before heading to Orlando.
Firefighters gather for instructions before heading to Orlando.

"I'm excited, and anxious," he said. "It's anything we can do to help."

Hall said his wife, Amber, was supportive of his decision to put himself in harm's way.

"She's tough," he said.

Southern Manatee Fire & Rescue's Herb Smith was the strike team's leader. He met with the group before leaving for Orlando.

"I am not sure what you are assigned to do," he said. "But it's life safety first."

Smith talked about the possibility of downed power lines and dangerous traffic conditions. 


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