Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Weather

Take hurricane evacuation orders seriously

The Tampa Bay area has been lucky.

In the past seven years, hurricanes have steered clear of the region. Tropical storms have caused some problems, but widespread catastrophic damage has been averted.

Despite the region's good fortune, emergency officials across Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties are preparing for one of their greatest challenges as a hurricane approaches:

Evacuation.

"We know that some will wait until the last minute," said Hernando County emergency management director Cecilia Patella, "and opt not to heed the warning."

New studies indicate residents only evacuate when they fear being hurt or killed. It's the job of emergency managers to get residents to comply with an evacuation order.

"We just have to be more diligent in helping people understand the true nature of the threat," said Hillsborough emergency management director Preston Cook.

He and other emergency managers contact media outlets and employ social media networks such as Twitter to get the message out.

"You can't sit stagnant," he said. "We're the busiest when it's not hurricane season."

Emergency plans, maps and procedures are constantly being updated as officials study and learn from hurricanes that hit other areas. Meetings are held to discuss and understand the plans.

The bottom line, emergency managers say, is that when an evacuation is ordered, residents should leave their homes as soon as possible.

"It's whenever we say go," Cook said. "People need to take it seriously."

The challenges are similar everywhere.

In Pinellas, the county adjusts its emergency plan every year based on studies of hurricanes in other areas, said Pinellas County emergency management spokesman Tom Iovino.

After Hurricanes Katrina and Ike, the county updated its evacuation map to include areas that could flood if a storm remained over an area longer than expected.

Superstorm Sandy, which smashed into the New Jersey coast last year, provided vivid evidence of what can happen when residents ignore evacuation warnings, Iovino said. The storm killed at least 125 people in this country.

"People will take that warning with a grain of salt," he said. "And when they do that, they're taking a terrible risk."

As part of its emergency evacuation plan, Pinellas County encourages residents who live near beaches to evacuate if storm surge is expected to be up just a few inches. Residents are also discouraged from walking and driving along flooded streets.

When a storm surge reaches several feet, the best place to be is inland on higher ground, he said.

Residents who fear for the safety of their pets during a storm are also less likely to evacuate, said Patella, the Hernando County emergency management director.

"Some residents will not evacuate without their pets," Patella said, "and we are prepared to accommodate at the pet shelter within reason."

In Pasco, emergency director Annette Doying said the county's resources are pooled during hurricanes to make the process as efficient as possible.

Police and fire agencies across the county establish field units to get key resources set up for hospitals and other emergency response.

If the county's resources aren't enough, Doying added, state emergency responders will assist by either sending aid from nearby counties or requesting help from other states.

   
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