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MD, FL share storm lessons

Maryland’s disaster responders heard from their Florida counterparts.


"You need to refresh your critical staff."

—Keith Holman

Maryland’s disaster responders heard a clear message from their Florida counterparts on Thursday: start preparing now for hurricane season.

At the Maryland Emergency Management Agency’s 20th Annual Severe Storms Awareness Conference, Keith Holman, director of emergency management for Martin County, Fla., spoke about living in a county hit by two hurricanes last September.

“Martin County hosted both the eye of (hurricanes) Frances and Jeanne,” said Holman of his coastal southeast county. “We suffered $488 million in insured losses, and I’m told that our uninsured losses equaled that.”

To add to the stress posed by those two hurricanes, Holman said the remnants of Hurricane Ivan – which had passed them by the first time, but then reorganized and moved back through Florida and the Gulf of Mexico – also dumped more than eight inches of rain on them.

“We still have the blue roofs on a lot of our homes, and many still have not settled with their insurance companies. Many folks are still in temporary trailers, and I expect that many of them will still be in trailers during this year’s hurricane season.”

Holman also took time to share the lessons he and his emergency management staff learned from last year. Evacuations posed a problem in both storms, but for different reasons. Residents evacuated before Hurricane Frances remained in shelters for more than 30 hours before the storm hit because of the dramatic slowing of Frances.

And once Hurricane Jeanne moved closer, Holman said numerous residents did not want to evacuate at all, so the shelters hardly sheltered anyone. “People didn’t react to it at all – or maybe some hadn’t even returned to the area yet, I suppose,” he explained. 

“But it’s an interesting and scary point about some of those who didn’t evacuate at all.  They thought that because they didn’t have problems during Frances, then they could stay through Jeanne, too.”

Those residents were lucky, he noted, because many didn’t have shutters or any type of protection. “Had either of those storms lived up to their potential for our county – it would have been a sad day in Martin County.”

Another lesson shared was making sure the emergency response staff had proper back-up and replacements. Holman said his pre-storm arrangement of lining up other regional staff to help out during the response saved his employees much stress.

“You need to refresh your critical staff. You’d better have someone waiting in the wings to take their place, or you will damage your employees,” said Holman. “You’ve got to treat your employees right, they are the key to the recovery. You’d better be sure to take care of their families, or make sure that they can.”

Other lessons shared included working with local weather forecasting offices to assess the storms’ eyes, extensive pre-storm planning to line up storage and service facilities, and standardizing equipment such as trailer hitches and generator hook-ups so that response and recovery are not slowed.

“You cannot under- or overestimate what’s going to happen,” said Holman.

Holman also encouraged the county emergency responders in attendance to do an evacuation study so that evacuation zones, lengths and routes can all be prepared in advance.

Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, gave an overview of the 2004 hurricane season – a season which caused more than $45 billion in damage.  Mayfield stressed the importance of building codes while telling a story about two homes on the same street in one Florida town.

One man left his home to stay at the neighbor’s home across the street, and he picked the right home to stay in during that hurricane, said Mayfield. The photos of the two homes were a striking contrast. One was scheduled to be demolished because the roof was torn off and most of the structure was compromised. The neighbor’s home only had minimal damage to its garage door.

Mayfield also noted that most storm-related deaths come after the storm. “Most people died in the cleanup phase last year,” he said, noting that inland flooding, stress, and careless do-it-yourself repair work caused many deaths. “There were 92 indirect storm deaths in Florida last year.”

Inland flooding from hurricanes often catches people by surprise and is one of the leading killers during hurricanes, he added. “Hurricanes are not just coastal problems.”

Mayfield summed up the importance of hurricane planning with one sentence. “I’m totally convinced that the battle against hurricanes is won now in the off-season.”

Conference speakers also discussed issues such as decision-making after tornadoes, post-disaster food safety issues, how Jamaica planned for and responded to Hurricane Ivan, and the outlook for the 2005 hurricane season.

While the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) hurricane outlook will not be released until mid-May, National Weather Service meteorologist David Manning spoke on other already-released forecasts. The most notable forecast is that of Dr. William Gray of Colorado State University, who predicts an above-average hurricane season for the Atlantic basin. Gray’s forecast predicts 13 named storms, of which seven will be hurricanes and three will be intense hurricanes.

Manning then noted the importance between listening to forecasts and just being prepared. “Don’t focus on the numbers – the real message is that anyone on the East of Gulf Coast must be prepared for a land-falling hurricane every year,” he said.

“Regardless of the outlook, just one storm can make it a catastrophic year.”

Other conference speakers agreed and emphasized preparedness in general.

“We need to prepare for what’s going to happen – but we also have to prepare for what can happen,” said MEMA Director John Droneburg. “Those two things need to be in balance.”

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