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Statewide effort helps Florida prepare for hurricanes

For decades, emergency managers pleaded for money to help Florida prepare for the big one. Repeatedly, their pleas failed to get support from the public and legislators.

It took nature to change all that.

Hurricane Andrew, the Category 5 hurricane that struck south Florida on Aug. 24, 1992, played a vital role in establishing a statewide emergency management trust fund which still provides the backbone for state and local emergency managers, said Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Craig Fugate.

Many other states facing catastrophic disaster haven't been able to create such a pool of money, he said.

"This again was one of the key lessons from Hurricane Andrew: That the state would and did dedicate a funding source for emergency management for the state of Florida," Fugate said.

He called Florida "the envy of the nation for the amount of funding that's provided at the state and to the counties."

In 1993, the state created the Emergency Management, Preparedness and Assistance Trust Fund, which is funded by surcharges on insurance policies. Annually, it provides each of Florida's 67 counties with $7 million, according to Florida Association of Counties

Fugate said Florida deserves a lot of credit for the trust fund, established in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew and the "Storm of the Century" the following year.

"Florida recognized that they need to fund emergency management," he said. "They needed to fund and build capacity and at the local level, particularly at the counties, which in Florida have the primary responsibility for carrying out emergency management."

Aside from creating a well of money, Florida also implemented a number of key recommendations that had been introduced in past legislative sessions but failed to gain critical support.

New legislation mandated that vulnerable facilities such as assisted-living facilities, nursing homes and hospitals have emergency evacuation plans approved by local officials.

The state began annual hurricane exercises and evacuation plans became more regional than county-specific.

Fugate, a seasoned Florida emergency manager, was serving as the emergency manager in Alachua County at the time Andrew ripped across south Florida. He recalled a slow evacuation.

"You literally had people stuck in traffic trying to leave Miami," he said. Shelters in the Gainesville area were opened for people who got stranded on the interstate because they ran out of gas.

After Andrew, shelter directors began to update designs. Emergency managers performed shelter surveys and realized they actually had shelter deficits and shelters that were inadequate.

Danny Valentine can be reached at dvalentine@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804 or on Twitter a @Danny_Valentine.

Statewide effort helps Florida prepare for hurricanes 05/18/12 [Last modified: Friday, May 18, 2012 12:46pm]
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