LARGO — Improving the evacuation process was the biggest lesson learned in Hurricane Irma, Pinellas emergency officials said Thursday.
Interim Emergency Management Director David Halstead said although the department got out evacuation information last year during Irma, they will be pushing the information more often and sooner.
Communication with the shelters will also increase to make sure the timing matches up with evacuations, Halstead said.
"We can’t ask people to evacuate at 9 a.m. and not have the shelters open until (noon)," Halstead said.
The county just finished a six-day hurricane preparedness exercise that began June 1, the official start of hurricane season. The exercise brought everyone together to run through the motions to make sure each department is on the same page. Then each shared the lessons they learned:
Department of Utilities
Irma brought massive power outages, said Megan Ross, interim director of utilities.
One area of concern is maintaining power at the more than 300 sewage lift stations. So the department has 25 powerful generators that can be deployed anywhere. Software accessible from each truck will help workers monitor where the problems are.
Department of Animal Services
During Irma, animal services sheltered over 2,000 animals throughout the storm, James McGill, Enforcement Division Manager, said.
Animal services created pet friendly shelters for severe storms right after the 2004 hurricane season, but they didn’t have to use it until last year.
In preparation for another severe storm, the previous emergency team of five has been increased to eight who are on standby if a hurricane arrives.
Previously, pet owners had to fill out a form in advanced of dropping of their animal at an emergency pet friendly shelter. But, McGill said, during Irma it slowed the process down so now owners will just have to fill out a form to drop off when they arrive.
Doug Templeton, operations manager, works to make sure there is no price gouging on basic items and unlicensed contractors.
He said unlicensed contracting makes up 35 percent of reports his department gets. Though Irma didn’t cause a spike with fraudulent contractors or the price of water, food and other basic necessities, Templeton said it is always a high concern during any storm and is something they closely monitor.
Templeton urged citizens to share if they ever experience price gouging or unlicensed contractors asking for work to ensure that their team can investigate.