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Hernando commission wants faster debris pickup after next hurricane

By Barbara Behrendt | Hernando County Reporter
Published: January 3, 2018 Updated: January 3, 2018 at 01:16 PM

BROOKSVILLE — For Hernando County residents, Hurricane Irma already is the stuff of stories, repair bills and mental notes to buy batteries and bottled water at the start of storm season this year.

But for those who ran the storm response, including about 40 officials with Hernando County Emergency Management, government workers, school district employees and volunteers, this is the time to critique what worked and what didn’t.

The first draft of the After Action/Improvement Plan by Emergency Management details where more training, better equipment, more coordination and discussion can improve future storm responses.

Among the suggestions were:

• Expanding available space for pet-friendly shelters.

• A more coordinated public information message.

• Weather monitoring at the Emergency Operations Center.

• Improving procedures for the special needs shelter.

• Examining the sand bag distribution process.

• Increasing capacity for phone calls and expanding wireless availability.

Better training for those involved in the emergency response, and better planning for resources — from communications devices and generators to non-perishable shelter supplies and fuel — also were recommended.

A top priority for county commissioners is faster and more efficient clean up of storm debris. In the weeks after the storm, they heard plenty from constituents about piles of branches, trunks, leaves and construction debris sitting ignored on front yards for too long.

Irma was the first storm since Hernando County took over emergency operations from the Sheriff’s Office last February. The County Commission made that choice after criticism about the warning system and the immediate response when Hurricane Hermine brushed Hernando County in 2016, causing coastal flooding.

Hernando County administrator Len Sossamon said Irma was the biggest challenge the county faced last year.

"She turned our months of September and October into a tempestuous season of survival against some of the greatest storm-related challenges our county has faced in decades,’’ he told the Times.

"While Hernando’s Gulf Coast was spared the damage from winds and storm surge produced a year earlier by Hurricane Hermine," he said, "Irma gave Hernando County the greatest flood challenge it has faced since 2004 when the Withlacoochee River rose to the level of 16.55 feet.

This year, the Withlacoochee River rose to a flood level of 17.67 feet, and it remained at flood stage for six weeks.’’

That made Hurricane Irma’s aftermath the fifth-worse river flooding in Hernando County’s history.

The all-time high flood level was reached in 1934 when the Withlacoochee rose to 20.38 feet, Sossamon noted.

Adding to discomfort in the community, power was out for days or longer after Irma for many residents, roads were closed and finding gas was a challenge. The arrival of food in grocery stores and opening of fast-food outlets prompted excitement from hungry residents tired of canned tuna and snack food.

Communication among local, state and regional emergency managers and weather forecasters, as well as adequate public information, were cited as strengths in the storm response critique. .

The draft plan will become complete after agency representatives provide their own written input, county officials said.

Sossamon praised his staff and community partners for the many hours they worked together in the storm. They "handled an extremely trying time with a great deal of calm and composure," he said

He also complimented local school leaders, workers and volunteers. Because of their efforts, "we sheltered more than 6,000 evacuees during the hurricane, the greatest number in our history. The previous high was during Hurricane Jeanne in 2004 when 1,434 evacuees were housed.’’

Irma was an extraordinary storm spreading damage throughout the state, but Sossamon said the county can do better with debris collection next time by having more contractors lined up ahead of time. Hermine left the county with 10,000 cubic yards of debris, he said, but Irma left behind 120,000.

"Overall,’’ Sossamon said, "we learned that we can never be prepared enough.’’

Contact Barbara Behrendt at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.