Andrew. Opal. Frances. Charley. Irene. Jeanne.
For many Floridians, these aren’t just names, these are memories. Each year, the Atlantic hurricane season sees an average of 9-10 tropical storms with at least 2-3 becoming major hurricanes.
Many times, these storms leave in their wake millions of dollars in damage, broken lives, and sometimes even death. While various preparations can be made, there is no form of prevention. The only “defense” is planning, mitigation and response. After the storm has passed, and its havoc has been wreaked, emergency workers are the first on-scene to help pick up the pieces and restore citizens to their normal routines.
While much of what emergency responders accomplish during the response phase is similar to their usual work, hurricanes and tropical storms bring with them a slew of challenges that can be difficult to predict and handle.
“Even if we get hit by only one storm, that’s still a ‘bad season’,” says Emergency Management Director Marshall Nelson. “We don’t worry so much about what the seasonal forecast says - we just plan to be prepared no matter what.”
With the next season looming on the horizon, Gulf County Emergency Management hosted a hurricane tabletop exercise at the Gulf County Emergency Operations Center (EOC), to give their staff and other agencies the chance to plan and prepare for the future. The exercise was held on Jan. 23 and used a scenario that simulates a hurricane impacting Gulf County. Multi-agency responders were presented with challenging informational injects throughout the exercise to give them a feel for how demanding and overwhelming an event like this can be, as they make on-the-spot decisions that will affect their county.
Nelson says that this exercise couldn’t come at a better time.
“We have a lot of new people - all needing a chance to integrate with each other. We need to work and train with each other now so that when an emergency occurs and we walk into the EOC, there’s no doubt about what we need to do,” he said.
The exercise was designed for a variety of responders but is not restricted to government agencies.
“One of our main goals for this exercise is to involve as many community partners as possible,” says Marshall Nelson. “In the event that a hurricane hits, it would impact our whole community, from emergency agencies to private industry to local citizens and we all need to be ready to respond.”
To that end, the exercise featured quite an array of participants including personnel from Gulf County Emergency Management, Commissioner’s Office, Administration, Grants Department, EMS, Building Department, Public Works, Mosquito Control, Planning Department, Fire/Rescue, Sheriff’s Office, Gulf County Health Department, Florida Forest Service, Gulf County Amateur Radio Society, Gulf District School Board, Sacred Heart Hospital, Gulf County Chamber of Commerce, Gulf County Tourist Development, the American Red Cross as well as local media.
Terry Schenk, the Exercise Director for Disasters, Strategies, and Ideas Group (DSI), the organization designing and running the exercise, praised the county for creating such widespread participation.
“Once again, Gulf County is planning now instead of being blindsided by a future event,” said Schenk, who also worked with Gulf County on a full scale mass casualty exercise in 2011. “Just as the county proved then when everyone is working as a cohesive team, it lays the groundwork to being better prepared for future emergencies. The Gulf County Board of Commissioners commitment to teamwork translates into lives being saved.”
An evaluation team from DSI will assess the response with the goal of developing an “after action report and improvement plan” to be used by the participants in enhancing their response capabilities. Marshall Nelson explained that the purpose of bringing in an evaluation team is to find strengths and weaknesses and use these findings as a learning tool for improvement.
With the practical certainty of future weather-related disasters, the need for local agencies to be better prepared has never been more important. This exercise, and the lessons learned from it, will serve to strengthen our multi-agency coordination and help Gulf County continue to be a safe and peaceful place to live.