This is the time of year Preston Cook worries about. It's the height of hurricane season, a time when the oceans have warmed sufficiently to stir up some fierce storms. As director of Hillsborough County's Emergency Management Division, he's the central figure in the county if a storm heads our way. Cook, on the job for two years, came to Tampa from Orlando, where he served in the same position in Orange County. The 45-year-old grew up in Birmingham, Ala., and is married with two boys and a girl. Having worked in secure communications for five years in the Army, he looked for a public safety job in civilian life. He always wanted to do something to help people, he said. He started as an emergency dispatcher in Orlando, soon moved into communications with the emergency management center and worked his way up to director. He was working when three hurricanes cut through Central Florida in 2004 and during a series of deadly tornadoes in 2007. He assisted people in the Panhandle when Hurricane Opal struck in 1995. He talked about the job and other matters with Philip Morgan of the Times.
Do you like disaster movies?
I must admit I do like action movies, and I do have a tendency to watch some of the disaster movies as well. The movie Tornado! — and Volcano with Tommy Lee Jones — everybody talks about that one. But, yeah, I do tend to watch them. It's interesting to see how Hollywood portrays some of this stuff.
Is it funny at times?
Sure, it's funny. Sometimes they get pretty close to it, but, you know, me being on the ground and being involved in several of these real-world disasters — it doesn't have the Hollywood ending, I'll tell you that. The long-term suffering that people deal with, you can't really see that in Hollywood movies.
A disturbance is forming near Cuba as we speak. Do you worry that people in the Tampa Bay area aren't paying enough attention?
I hope they are because this information has been out there a couple of days now. And we're in the height of hurricane season, so I hope they're thinking if anything is out there, they need to be paying close attention, especially in this particular area — because it doesn't give you a lot of time to get ready for it. It could form very quickly, and the difficult part that the National Hurricane Center has in telling us, in forecasting these storms, the most difficult — the thing they say they just have no skill (in) really — is the determination of how fast this storm is going to speed up and how powerful it's going to become.
What do you say to people who don't take hurricanes seriously?
Really, the only thing you can do, you know, is to tell them the truth. You look at what happened in Superstorm Sandy when folks were calling 911 and … trying to get help, (saying), "Hey, you need to come save me, you need to come get me.'' Well, the answer was, "We're not coming.'' … When we've told you to evacuate and you didn't follow instructions, at some point people need to realize they've taken their lives into their own hands and we're not coming because it's too dangerous to put emergency responders on the road. … Not that we don't want to, but that it just doesn't make sense to put others in harm's way because you didn't follow instructions.
What are your early memories of dangerous weather?
I've seen the threat of tornadoes on a regular basis growing up in Alabama. … It always stuck with me as a kid, to see the fear that these tornadoes bring, and wanting to be able to help others dealing with it. My mother, she always took precautions. We had a storm shelter. …We went in and used it several times a year, just to be ready.
What's it like when a storm is approaching?
Well, when it does happen, and the storm's coming — just like in '04 — it was great, really great, to see all those years of working and putting those plans together come together and actually work. … It's extremely stressful. It's tiring. You can imagine being up two and three days at a time, exhausted, but still wanting to go because there's a lot going on, still much to do. Somebody has to tap you on the shoulder and say, "Hey, you — go lay your butt down and go to sleep before you fall out.'' Because that's how we are in this business: You don't want to stop, and it does get your blood pumping.
Any memories of talking to survivors?
I've talked to people that stayed in their homes and saw their homes devastated, whether a tree fell through, or other debris came and damaged the homes and wind was coming through; or in Opal, when the water was rushing in and people had to go up several stories just to try to escape the water.
When you talk to those people, one of the things they always say is, "I'll never do that again. I'll never stay when they say go.'' Once they've gone through it and they know the misery, they know the fear, they know the threat to their lives and their families, they say, "I'll never do it again.''
What's your biggest fear?
If a storm comes through here at the right magnitude — it doesn't have to be the largest storm possible, it just needs all the right features. Headed in the right direction, not coming directly to the bay but kind of paralleling a little bit and coming in a little to the north of us, and then being big enough to funnel water into the bay, and being slow enough that it can sit there and churn and constantly do that. It doesn't have to be a (Category) 5. It can be a Cat 3 or 4, but it's slow enough and big enough. That storm could sit out there and it could cause so much destruction to us that people don't understand the level of destruction we'd actually face. My fear is that we would not have done enough to ensure that we got everybody out in time, that they wouldn't have taken that warning seriously enough to leave, and we have a severe loss of life. There's going to be damage. We can repair the stuff. But the loss of life is what I work every day to prevent.
When you picked a place to live, did you make sure you were on high ground?
Absolutely! (He laughs.) … The thing that I say, if I'm going to be able to tell somebody to take all the necessary precautions, I need to be able to live it and not just talk it. So when it comes to a disaster supply kit — I ask people all the time, do they have a kit? On a couple of occasions, people say, "Do you have one?'' Whenever they say it, I want to be able to say, "Yes, I do.''
Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.