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Hernando officials confident after hurricane drill

BROOKSVILLE — The mock Category 3 hurricane that slammed the outer edges of Hernando County on Friday was only a test, but an important one as emergency response officials left confident they finally have the tools to handle a disaster.

"We're pleased with how we did," said interim emergency management director Cecilia Patella. "Of course, there's always room for improvement, and we plan to work on that in the coming months."

The drill was a do-over of a practice exercise in early June that came off less than stellar.

At issue was a computer software program designed by former emergency manager Tom Leto, who was fired last month. The agency found the program had not been loaded onto the main computer at the Emergency Operations Center before the storm drill. Not only was it impossible for several emergency management officials to log on to the system, but some who did log on found they weren't adequately trained to use the software.

The revamped software created few problems for users this time. Several representatives from other agencies even said it was easier to use than previous programs.

However, County Administrator David Hamilton fears the software may become a liability if the county has to communicate with other Tampa Bay area agencies.

"It's not compatible with what most of them in use," Hamilton said. "There needs to be a way to be sure that won't be a problem in a real emergency. By then, it's too late to fix it."

The fictional Hurricane Herb provided the county's fire, law enforcement, medical and operations personnel a scenario to deal with the aftermath of a storm that brought 130 mph winds and an 18-foot storm surge. With areas west of U.S. 19 evacuated, emergency personnel focused on handling the needs of an estimated 700 residents in storm shelters, downed power lines and essential county services.

The biggest unknown challenge proved to be how agencies would communicate with one another during the disaster. A nine-member communications team assumed the duties of taking mock calls from storm victims and turning over emergency requests to the proper officials.

"It's the kind of training you can't have too much of," said county Health and Human Services Director Jean Rags. "If and when a storm like this comes, the public needs to know you're prepared for it."

Patella said more training exercises will be held during July and another storm drill is planned for August.

Logan Neill can be reached at lneill@sptimes.com or 848-1435.

Hernando officials confident after hurricane drill 06/27/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 30, 2008 11:53pm]
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