Hurricane season officially began last week and Tropical Storm Andrea showed up to celebrate.
Even though she treated Gulf County to little more than wind and rain, the Emergency Operations Center was ready, having completed its annual preparations weeks prior.
Required emergency management exercises take place statewide to inform and update local first response teams on what to do in the event of an emergency and the proper ways for the area to recover from it.
In late May Emergency Management Director Marshall Nelson hosted a recovery drill to ensure the emergency operations staff is ready should disaster strike during the upcoming season.
“We spend a lot of time talking about the initial response but not always the recovery process,” said Nelson.
He focused his session on the two to four weeks after a disaster and encouraged the staff to think of scenarios they might encounter, such as how to help the injured if the hospital and health department are shut down.
He also discussed costly services like debris removal with the group to ensure they had a strong understanding of the events that could transpire in the weeks that follow.
“Some were shocked,” said Nelson. “Some of them had never thought about those things.”
Nelson did stress the importance of being prepared both for families and individuals. He encouraged everyone to stock up on food, water and gasoline well in advance.
“Once a storm hits, all of the places you would get those items could be closed or destroyed,” Nelson said.
During times of distress, communication is vital to the safety of any community.
“It’s all about accuracy, timing and how the message is delivered,” said Jennifer Jenkins, executive director of the Gulf County Tourist Development Council and county Public Information Officer.
Any time that the EOC is activated, Jenkins attends all briefings and meetings and reports to the Board of County Commissioners. She is also responsible for speaking with authorities, locals and the media, relaying any and all pertinent info from the EOC.
The TDC has a system in place that will automatically transmit important information to residents via email and a text message-based campaign is currently in the works.
“As always, safety is our number one concern, but we also have to be mindful that our livelihood is anchored around tourism,” Jenkins said.
In addition to keeping the local and regional media informed during disasters, Jenkins also communicates with local businesses and rental agencies so that important information is passed along to tourists both current and upcoming.
“Immediately after the storm, we are mindful of our messaging, finding that balance between assessing the damage, keeping everyone safe and letting visitors know we are back open for business.”
She also works alongside the county Public Works team to continually assess the beaches throughout hurricanes and storms, watching for damage or erosion that potential visitors may need to know about.
The TDC website is host to a travel advisory component that allows Jenkins to change the messaging at a moment’s notice, allowing for the latest information to be available at all times.
Based on her 20 years of tourism marketing experience, Jenkins praised the Gulf County EMS team.
“Marshal is top notch and the way everyone works together is amazing,” she said. “I certainly feel safe and confident when we are activated.”
Nelson added, “If you know who you’re playing in the sandbox with, you’ll work together better.”
Hurricanes pose a constant threat to the region and locals should always have a disaster kit on hand during the summer months.
Kits should be assembled in advance and contain a minimum of three days’ worth of food, one gallon of water per person per day, a flashlight and extra batteries and a first aid kit.
Though local officials and relief workers will be on scene after a disaster, it may take up to 72 hours to reach everyone.
For more information on hurricane safety and to create a plan for your family, visit www.floridadisaster.org.
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