BROOKSVILLE — As hurricane season opens this week, the county's emergency management director is confident that her staff is readier than ever to keep Hernando residents safe, thanks to some additions and changes during the past year.
Cecilia Patella, who was appointed interim emergency management director several weeks into last year's hurricane season and became director several months later, points to the addition of two shelters, planned accommodations for pets and a new computer software program as some of the notable improvements.
This will also be the first hurricane season that the emergency management staff reports to the sheriff. Previously, emergency management was under the umbrella of county government.
A 10th public school is now available as a hurricane shelter if needed. With the opening of Explorer K-8 in Spring Hill last summer, Hernando has been able to reduce its deficit in shelter space.
Patella said Hernando is still shy of its need by thousands of spaces, but every new facility helps, especially a school the size of Explorer, which is off Northcliffe Boulevard. New schools in Florida are required to be built to the enhanced hurricane standards, she said, until the need for shelter space is met.
There will also be additional relief later in the season if emergency management can pull off the long-awaited retrofitting at Parrott Middle School, on the north side of Brooksville.
Patella said she will ask for County Commission approval this month to move forward with that project, using a school district contractor. The plan is to replace doors and provide hurricane screening for windows in some of the interior corridors of the school.
Once that is done and an operational plan is completed, Parrott will become the county's first pet-friendly hurricane shelter. One wing of the school will be for people and the other will be for pets.
Residents who bring their crated pets to the shelter would care for them until the storm approached; then people would move to their shelter area.
After the storm, they would return to the pet wing to continue caring for their animals.
The corridor used for the pets would be wrapped in plastic sheeting for easier cleaning. The shelter will hold an estimated 300 cats and dogs.
A grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency is paying for the supplies needed for the pet-friendly shelter. A campaign to educate area residents about the shelter will begin after it is ready, Patella said.
There is also a plan to seek and train volunteers to help with pets that are left at the shelter by owners who ride out the storm elsewhere.
Patella said that pet-friendly shelters are now required because of lessons learned during Hurricane Katrina.
"What we're hearing is that there are people out there who will not evacuate under any circumstance because they won't leave their pet," she said. By offering those residents the option of taking their pets with them, "we're going to get them out of harm's way."
Another change for the 2009 hurricane season won't be something residents will see, but they will see the results. Emergency management recently switched over to a new computer software program that staffers will use during emergency situations. Training for those who would staff a disaster is ongoing.
The program, called Web EOC, replaces a system designed in-house that had caused some problems in the past and reportedly was not user-friendly. Patella said the new software, which is used in dozens of other Florida cities and counties, including Citrus and Sumter, is easy to use and will help better coordinate efforts of emergency responders and other agencies that participate in responding to a disaster.
The system tracks events during an emergency, keeps up with what is happening in the Emergency Operations Center and allows direct contact with agencies and organizations that respond.
For example, if a shelter needed water, a request would be made through the Internet-based program; the person in charge of providing water would immediately get the message, and the water would be sent out. The Web EOC program would track all those activities so that the entire event could be recreated and examined later to make operational improvements.
The added plus is that the system will help the county report to the state details about its emergency response. In addition, with Citrus and Sumter using the same program, there can be better regional coordination, Patella said.
She said the transition to working for the sheriff, which happened Jan. 1, has been smooth and that her staff hasn't skipped a beat. While her department is ready for this hurricane season, she said the real need is for residents to begin getting themselves prepared as well.
"The state of Florida for quite some time has been sending out the message about being a survivor rather than being a victim of a disaster," she said. "To be a survivor, you need to have a plan in place."
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.