NEW PORT RICHEY — Look for Andrew Fossa if a hurricane is headed toward Pasco County.
The 53-year-old sports a buzz cut, paired with a dark mustache and a silver goatee.
Some tell-tale signs it's him: Fossa’s cup typically is filled with Arnold Palmer half-and-half, never coffee.
His desk is littered with firefighter memorabilia and so are his arms. Kanji tattoos down his forearms mean “firefighter” and “paramedic.” He also has ink of the Pasco County Fire Rescue symbols.
Fossa became the Pasco County emergency management director in January. He’s the one who would sound the county’s alarm if a hurricane is aimed near the Tampa Bay area and then would organize the recovery. He aims to boost the preparedness of county residents.
Some of his first changes in the role were to switch from using a Tampa Bay regional and hurricane-specific emergency guide to a glossy county guide that also goes over other emergencies, such as sinkholes, tornadoes and wildfires. It includes an evacuation-zone map and an emergency kit list.
In June, the department released a series of video vignettes, some featuring Fossa, that goes over what to do with your pets during a hurricane or how to make a proper sandbag.
Fossa has seen emergencies and destruction firsthand after responding to fires and medical incidents during his 28 years in the Pasco County Fire Rescue. At the department, he climbed the ranks from firefighter and emergency medical technician to deputy chief.
He became interested in emergency management after he was on the other end of hurricane dispatching. Fossa went to Manhattan with a logistics team in 2012 after Hurricane Sandy. The team was in charge of generators and helping people get power back. But the New York infrastructure was still running on an old electrical grid made up of copper and brass that was destroyed by saltwater. People went without power for months.
Then he was moved to The Rockaways, where he oversaw 185 ambulances and National Guard units in the area. They had to help take people to medical appointments. Crews would knock on door after door to see if anyone needed help.
Fossa said he remembers going into a Dunkin' Donuts and thinking that water didn't get inside because he didn't see a waterline, which is typically only a few feet high. Then someone he was with told him to look up. They saw the waterline was about 30 feet tall.
He also saw houses slipped off foundations and boardwalks destroyed.
"To be where I was at and to actually see what had happened was a very big eye-opener for me," Fossa said. "It was breathtaking. It was very depressing and saddening."
Pasco County Fire Rescue Chief Scott Cassin said he remembers how energized Fossa was to continue in emergency management once he came back from the deployment. Fossa went out on all the deployments he could and took the classes he needed to learn more about the field. “I don’t know if there’s an incident big enough for him," Cassin said. He loved helping and interacting with people, even if it was on their worst days, Fossa said.
When Cassin started in Pasco in 2010, Fossa was his training captain. Cassin wrote Fossa a letter of recommendation when he applied to be the emergency management director, commenting on his energy for the position and knowledge of fire rescue. Having Fossa' in the position has helped to streamline communication between emergency management and fire rescue, at least on small county disasters.
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Pasco County isn't a stranger to hurricane disaster. Pasco County estimated it spent nearly $9 million recovering from Hurricane Irma. This included $4.6 million for debris removal, $1.4 million on roads and the cost of cleaning schools used as shelters, according to previous Tampa Bay Times reporting. Almost 48,000 people registered for individual household assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and 510 families sought temporary shelter assistance.
Fossa said Pasco County would spend about the same if a hurricane like Irma came again. The county's main issue when storms approach is that people from Pinellas and Hillsborough counties travel northward, making Interstate 75 in Pasco a parking lot and overcrowding emergency shelters, he said.
Another areas of concern is the county’s coastal area, everything west of U.S. 19. The Elfers neighborhood in Holiday often floods. The county is trying to buy property in the area so the parks department can make it into a kayak park.
Just over a dozen people work in the Pasco County Department of Emergency Management. On "blue sky" days, they're training and applying for federal grants. The department operates on a budget between $900,000 and $1 million without grants.
Monica Santiago, the emergency coordinator, said Fossa has been one of her most laid-back supervisors.
"It was breathtaking to see how personal he can be and how committed he is to his team and his office," she said.
This year, the office has also been using more technology and data to help them get reimbursements after storms, Santiago said.
Fossa has also been trying to improve the county's relationships with the private sector, like Home Depot and Publix, he said. Public-private partnerships help with getting supplies the county needs when a storm is coming.
He's also trying to warn people that emergency shelter should be a last resort. He's seen people come to shelters with recliners and television sets in tow, but there isn't room for those luxury items. They’re advised to evacuate to a hotel or a friend’s house that's out of harm's way.
Those who need special assistance during an emergency can register with the county, although this doesn't reserve a spot for them at a shelter.
In his free time, Fossa will coach and umpire for his stepchildren’s Little League baseball and softball teams. Sometimes, he takes off to go see Garth Brooks concerts. He doesn’t like country music. His wife does.
For the hurricane season, Fossa said he's going to be careful about when to sound the alarm about a hurricane aimed toward the county. Make it too early, and people don't take it seriously. Make it too late, there could be devastating consequences.
The difficult part of Hurricane preparedness in Florida is that many people believe that a storm is not going to affect them, Fossa said. If Hurricane Michael had made a right turn last year, Pasco County had less than 18 hours to open shelters and get services in place.
"These storms, even though they miss us 95 percent of the time," he said, "it's going to take that one storm to wake everybody up."
Contact Paige Fry at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @paigexfry.