BROOKSVILLE — With images of submerged cars, gaping sinkholes and flooded neighborhoods still fresh in her mind, Hernando emergency management director Cecilia Patella wants county residents to be ready for whatever the 2013 hurricane season might bring.
Last year's record rainfall during Tropical Storm Debby damaged property and rerouted traffic across the county, but the event also taught Patella and others who had to deal with the aftermath valuable lessons that will be put in place as this season begins.
As always, Patella encourages every resident to have a hurricane plan and prepare an emergency kit. Those who plan to evacuate to a special needs shelter should register ahead of time with Emergency Management.
Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics is the designated special needs shelter.
New to the shelter inventory this year is Central High School. Shelters are opened as they are needed, based on storm conditions and specific needs of residents, Patella explained.
There have been no changes to evacuation zones or evacuation routes, but she said residents who use Cortez Boulevard as their evacuation route need to be aware that it is in the midst of a major construction project. People should plan accordingly, she said.
Patella's office faced criticism for poor communication with the public during Debby. She said an effort has been made to address that issue and that training and a more seasoned staff should result in a more efficient release of information if another storm threatens.
Debby also reinforced for emergency management and county public works officials that areas where they expected to see standing water in a major storm were exactly where roads were underwater. Now officials can regularly monitor those trouble spots in future storm events and be ready to mark them or close them.
Another internal change made because of Debby is that it will be the job of the Public Works Department to monitor the road system and determine when closures are warranted and when to reopen roads, Patella said. During Debby, law enforcement was also involved in that process, and there were conflicts about when roads were officially reopened and when roads were still closed, even if residents had removed barriers.
Patella said the last storm also convinced her that the people who staff the county's emergency operations center during an event need to gather sooner. The quicker they assemble, the quicker they can respond as issues arise. Many of those people participated in a recent hurricane exercise, which Patella said went well. It was also a chance for people to meet one another before a real emergency so they are prepared to work together immediately when the county is threatened.
She said she is so confident in her team, because of their experience and level of training, that she may loan them out if another community is affected by a disaster. Patella just wants Hernando residents to be ready, too. "Keep in mind, they're calling for an above-average (hurricane) season,'' Patella said. "Even if it's just one for us, it would be a bad year, so be prepared.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.