Tropical Storm Debby first major test for new Hillsborough emergency operations staff

TAMPA — Exactly one year after Preston Cook became Hillsborough County's emergency management director, he stood before the County Commission giving an update on his first big storm.

Tropical Storm Debby was not at all what anyone expected.

The slow-moving, scattered storm dumped rain on the Tampa Bay area, causing flooding and beach erosion.

Hillsborough County flooded in some places, but for the most part dodged a bullet.

"If it had stayed for three or four days, it would have been much more devastating for the county," Cook said.

But it didn't.

The storm allowed Cook and his team, most of whom started in the past year, to implement the plans they've been laying since they took on their jobs as sentinels of the county.

Lessons were learned on the fly and needs were made evident.

"Debby was a little frustrating. I would rather know what it's going to do or know the general areas of impact," Cook said.

• • •

Four days after the last raindrop from Debby, Cook sat in his office fielding calls.

Staff members had fanned out to areas with flood damage to try to help people get services.

An urgent call came in.

"How many units have been condemned?" Cook asked the employee tasked with investigating flooding at an apartment complex on N 15th Street north of Fowler Avenue

He breathed a sigh of relief when the caller answered: two.

That morning, the Jesus House church on N 15th Street opened its doors as an emergency shelter and services contact point under the county's direction.

Affected residents were advised to go there for a hot meal and a place to sleep.

Cook waited to hear back about the apartment condemnations to see if the county could provide some sort of relocation assistance through the Housing Authority.

"We try to address those with true needs," he said. "So we have to verify everything."

• • •

In March 2011, Hillsborough County's Emergency Operations merged with Fire Rescue — a new concept here but a common practice in other places.

"When there are separate departments, there are usually communication barriers. The information flow is much better, much improved since they came into Fire Rescue," fire Chief Ron Rogers said.

Rogers said Cook is doing a great job with the team of eight he has built in the past year.

"He was handicapped significantly with the turnover in staff," Rogers said.

Only one staff member remains from the original emergency management team.

Rogers said the turnover was caused by a lack of upward mobility, a change in leadership and directives, and personal financial considerations.

"Sometimes when a department is small and there is no place to move up to, people move out," Cook explained.

In a year's time, Rogers and Cook have managed to fill all but two vacancies in the department. They all look forward to moving into a new, state-of-the-art building in 2014.

The county allotted $31.4 million to build the structure on Columbus Drive near U.S. 301.

"It will be energy efficient, have raised floors so we don't have to put pipes in the walls every time we need a new piece of equipment, and have temperature controlled server rooms," Cook said.

The current Emergency Operations Center seats about 100 people, has a land line phone and laptop dock at each station. Information that needs to be shared is projected onto two pull-down screens.

"This building came along before the Internet," Cook said.

That building, Rogers noted, was constructed 20 years ago to serve a much smaller Hillsborough population. Right now, the new building is still in the planning stages.

• • •

On the Saturday before Debby hit, Cook came into the EOC to start preparing for an emergency. The staff came in on Sunday and opened up the command center to transportation officials, Tampa Electric Co. workers and public works representatives.

Those agencies are three of the 18 emergency management functions expected to respond in a time of crisis.

County residents called 911 dispatch to report flooded roads, downed power lines and trees. The EOC took those calls and organized road blocks and detours.

A University area nursing home that must be evacuated during every heavy rain was cleared out again on Debby's second day.

For the flooding in the N 15th Street and E Fowler Avenue corridor, the county opened a shelter at Greco Middle School at 6925 East Fowler Ave. No one showed up. Just three families took advantage of the hot meals, and no one stayed overnight.

"It's one of those things that you would rather have and not need than the other way around," Cook said.

Everywhere around Hillsborough families were showing off their preparedness. In Riverview, residents hauled out canoes to cross flooded streets. In the University area, families packed up their dry belongings and headed for relatives' homes.

"Our residents are really up on it. They take care of themselves for the most part," said Eugene Henry, a hazard mitigation manager for the county.

His job is to help those who are at the highest risk avoid these sorts of disasters.

Recently, the county aided a family with grants that kept their flood-prone home from being inundated again.

"I went by during this storm and checked and it was safe. I called them up, because they were out of town, and told them everything was safe," Henry said.

Robbyn Mitchell can be reached at (813) 226-3373 or rmitchell@tampabay.com

Tropical Storm Debby first major test for new Hillsborough emergency operations staff 07/06/12 [Last modified: Friday, July 6, 2012 10:24pm]

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