Pinellas County to hire an expert to analyze lessons learned during Hurricane Irma
Pinellas County Administrator Mark Woodard has his own opinions about the lessons learned from Hurricane Irma's reign over the area. But he plans to hire an outside expert to analyze what went right and wrong to better prepare for the 2018 hurricane season.
In a meeting Tuesday with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board, also attended by County Commission Chair Janet Long, Woodard said emergency management staff historically conducts the review after a major event. But with the intensity of Irma's impact before and after landfall, “we'd feel more comfortable having a third party come in.”
Woodard said most notably, Irma highlighted the need for more emergency shelter space. About $3 million over the past seven years, paid for through Penny for Pinellas sales tax revenue, has helped create 9,614 additional spaces at six schools to house people during storms. The funding has also paid for those facilities to add emergency lighting, generators and other upgrades to act as shelters during hurricanes.
“If our future is indeed more frequent, more intense storms, having additional shelter space would be important,” he said.
Woodard said Irma also highlighted the need for the Florida Legislature and the health care industry to ensure skilled nursing homes and assisted living facilities are prepared beyond minimal standards.
After eight people died at a Hollywood nursing home following the power outage from Irma and lack of air conditioning, a handful of South Florida legislators last week drafted bills that would require nursing and retirement homes maintain generators to cool their facilities during power outages.
“That's a problem for the Legislature working with the private sector to fix, but as a county government, we are here to look out for those who cannot look out for themselves,” Woodard said. “So we think part of our future, there will be a need for more shelter space and more focus on special needs shelters.”
Woodard said the renewal of the Penny for Pinellas tax, which will go before voters Nov. 7, would also be vital to pay for stormwater and wastewater infrastructure upgrades to better handle future storms and flooding. During Irma, county 300 lift stations lost power, resulting in sewage spills that are still being measured.
Other lessons learned: more shelters need to accommodate pets at the beginning of evacuations, and the county could better prepare for technology glitches that came from residents overloading websites checking for hurricane information.
Woodard said he hopes to hire the expert soon to have the analysis completed with a quick turn around.