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Blunt voice of reason is leaving the eye of the storm

TAMPA — Protecting residents from disasters like a hurricane is a tough job. Larry Gispert can't wait to leave it.

He is counting the days. Actually, the screen saver on his computer is ticking off the seconds.

"A hundred and four days, 3 hours, 55 minutes and three seconds," Gispert said recently.

After 17 years as Hillsborough County emergency management director, Gispert is tired. And he's never even had to face a real hurricane here.

Living life as the guy whose pleas fall on deaf ears month after month, year after year, hurricane warning after hurricane warning, isn't just frustrating.

It's infuriating.

"I wish I had a dollar for every dumba-- who said, 'I didn't know I had to evacuate, I'm from Pittsburgh,' " he said. "Well, go back to Pittsburgh."

Gispert's job is to warn people about the inherent dangers of hurricanes. The bluntness of his message is what sets him apart from other emergency officials.

When the big one finally hits Tampa and you don't leave your home, you will die, he tells folks at libraries, neighborhood meetings, rotary clubs, community rec centers. People in the audience nod like they get it. Then they walk out the door and he hears them chuckling.

One guy had the nerve to write Gispert a letter, complaining there was no WiFi in the hurricane shelters.

"And we're laying off teachers," he said. "I had to write him back a beautiful bureaucratic letter, like, 'Thank you so very much for your suggestion …'' What he really wanted to say: "You're a dumba--. Now go back to Pittsburgh."

• • •

Gispert, 61, was born and raised in Brandon, back when Brandon was little more than cow pastures and a traffic light. He went to St. Petersburg Junior College for a couple years before dropping out and joining the Coast Guard, where he worked as a radioman for four years.

During his last year, he met Shirley, "a typical Yankee" from Pennsylvania who worked for an airline. They met when she was visiting Honolulu while he was stationed there. She thought he was good-looking, funny, down to earth. After a few months of the long-distance thing, he proposed and they got married. They have one daughter, Danielle, now 30.

Gispert went back to school after the Coast Guard and got his bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of Tampa. He became highly skilled at fixing and assembling radios, and started working in the Hillsborough County Parks and Recreation Department in 1971. He moved to Emergency Management in 1980 and worked his way up to director in 1993.

He has learned that people are fools. They don't pay attention, they don't plan, they lie.

After Hurricane Charley nearly hit the Tampa Bay area before suddenly turning into Port Charlotte, Hillsborough officials conducted a survey to find out who evacuated. As many as 30 percent of people who should have evacuated did not, Gispert said. Of those who did not, 80 percent said they didn't know a hurricane was coming.

"Can you believe these people have the (nerve) to tell me that?" he said, employing a more colorful word.

Gispert worries. He loses sleep. Over the years, Shirley has learned how to keep the conversations light, the mood relaxed at home. Her husband feels responsible for the safety of everyone around him, and that comes at a personal cost. When doom looms, Gispert drops everything.

Before he was emergency management director, he oversaw 911 operations in Hillsborough. If one of his employees called in sick, he would leave a nice dinner date to work the phones.

"It got frustrating for me," Shirley said. "But he said, 'You know, it could be your mother calling 911 and not getting through.' He always had a way of getting through to me."

And that's how Gispert gets away with being Gispert.

"As colorful language as he has — and he does speak his mind — he's still a professional," said Betti Johnson, emergency management director for the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, who has known Gispert for 30 years. "He speaks his mind, but it's not without thought."

• • •

By far, the most stressful moments of Gispert's career were the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons, when it felt like one storm after another seemed destined to become his worst nightmare.

He has had to prepare the county for other scenarios — tornadoes, floods, hail, terrorist attacks — that thankfully have never caused widespread havoc here.

He has spent 17 years fearing for the lives of others, especially those stubborn ones who won't leave despite his warnings, the ones who chuckle when he tells them they'll die.

Gispert has no plans after retirement. He'll spend more time with Shirley and their three cats.

He'll keep watching the forecasts and waiting for that hurricane that finally comes. When it does, he and his wife and the cats will be long gone, the first to evacuate the moment the warning comes.

Gispert longs for a day when everyone else gets it. Even the ones from Pittsburgh.

Gispertisms

"I don't know about you, but I don't even answer my phone at home anymore. I can use the television and radio to tell the people who are watching television or listening to the radio. But I have no way, really, of notifying 1 million people." — In 2003, on warning people who live along ammonia pipelines of leaks.

"Just don't go out and rent a chain saw and start hacking away at your 100-year-old tree." — In 2005, on preparing for hurricane season.

"We've been preaching for years about having a hurricane kit, a three-day supply of water, food, batteries and medicine. And after Frances and Jeanne, people called up saying, 'I don't have anything to eat or drink.' I asked, 'Where's your hurricane kit?' " — In 2005, recalling the 2004 season.

"The Chamber of Commerce doesn't ask me to speak at any events. What makes this place paradise also makes it dangerous." — In 2005, on the Tampa Bay area.

"They had 30 people die in an apartment complex in Biloxi. Why were they there? They had ample warning. I mean it wasn't like that wasn't the lead story on the news for the whole weekend." — In 2005, on concerns about a Hurricane Katrina-sized storm coming here.

Blunt voice of reason is leaving the eye of the storm 11/12/10 [Last modified: Friday, November 12, 2010 10:41pm]

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