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Interim Emergency Management director replaced

BROOKSVILLE — County Administrator David Hamilton has again shaken up the county's bruised Office of Emergency Management, this time in reaction to last week's botched performance during the statewide hurricane drill.

After meeting with the staff, Hamilton announced Tuesday that Cecilia Patella will replace Mark Tobert as the interim emergency management director. Until a new director is chosen, county Health and Human Services Director Jean Rags will oversee the department.

Also, the county will have a hurricane drill do-over on June 27, giving the emergency management team another chance to show that it is ready to respond to a disaster. And Hamilton is inviting the media to observe.

"I'm anticipating significant improvements'' in the second drill, he said.

"I'm making these changes based on the need to assure the community that emergency management is completely prepared and assure the county board to whom I report that we're in a position to handle any possible emergency,'' Hamilton said.

Patella said she and the staff are confident that they are prepared. Last week's drill stalled due to computer problems from a program designed by former emergency manager Tom Leto and another employee who is no longer there.

The program was not loaded onto the central computer in the Emergency Operations Center and drill participants unfamiliar with it fell so far behind that mock Category 3 Hurricane Herb had already hit Hernando County by the time they were in full operation.

Patella said Tuesday that the real issues were lack of knowledge and training in the system. "We're willing to give this software a chance,'' she said.

Hamilton attended that drill and left the session feeling concerned about the state of emergency management. He said he decided to make the staff change after realizing that Patella's education and experience made her a more appropriate interim director.

She has coordinated the county's mitigation program since 2005 and has 17 years of experience in project management, business continuity and disaster recovery in both the private and public sectors. She has a bachelor's degree in business administration and business management and is certified as a Florida professional emergency manager.

In her current position, she has secured more than $2-million in grants, helped lower flood insurance premiums for county residents, worked with the debris removal and debris monitoring contracts and managed complex software development projects.

The change means that Tobert, who has been interim director since Leto was fired, will return to his original position as senior coordinator.

Hamilton said that having Rags oversee emergency management in the interim is a good fit because he sees the purpose of the department as two-fold.

There is the immediate policing aspect in an emergency and discussions about turning over the department to the sheriff will continue. But Hamilton also notes the human side of disaster response, functions such as helping people find their families, their pets, securing food and shelter.

Rags has overseen health and human services since 1999 and the Veteran Service Office for the past two years. After Hurricane Katrina, Rags was tapped by the state and worked in Mississippi to help coordinate volunteers and donations.

This is not the first time that emergency management has fit under another department in county government. In in the past, there was a time when it fell under the responsibility of the fire chief.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Interim Emergency Management director replaced 06/10/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 12, 2008 5:05pm]
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