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Let storms pass, then learn

Hurricane Frances has blown by, but some gusts are still being felt. Specifically, the political winds are churning between County Commission Chairman Josh Wooten and state Rep. Charlie Dean.

On Wednesday, while detailing the actions taken by county and state leaders during the recent storm, Wooten noted that one key player was noticeably absent from the fray.

While he, Sheriff Jeff Dawsy and State Sen. Nancy Argenziano were rassling with state emergency operations officials about getting much-needed aid for Citrus residents, Wooten said, Dean was nowhere to be found.

Making matters worse, according to Wooten, Dean issued a press release praising the good work being performed by state workers during the crisis even though Dean had not talked to Citrus officials about the trouble they were having with the state.

"The first time his office contacted us was on Tuesday when (Dean aide) Jeff Porter called to offer help," Wooten said. Capt. Joe Eckstein put the call on speakerphone at the county's Emergency Operations Center so that everyone in the room could hear. "(Dean) never called the Sheriff's Office or the county administration or this commissioner," Wooten said.

Wooten is right, Dean said on Friday, he did not call the Sheriff's Office during the height of the storm. But that was by design.

"Having been sheriff, I know what it takes to run the EOC," Dean said. "The people who are in charge there didn't need me parading around. My job is to help them to get dollars and assistance after the storm. Was I going to call in the middle of it? They don't need that kind of thing. They have a punch list of things they need to be doing and I don't need to be in the way."

But shouldn't Dean have at least checked in to see if they needed any help?

"I wasn't aware they were having trouble," Dean acknowledged. "But I was available. My office and home phone numbers are in the book. Eckstein has my number. I respect him, I know the tremendous responsibility he has. I didn't think that a state representative should be telling Eckstein how to do his business."

Dean said that after the storm, he got together with some friends to help their neighbors. "I took out my generator and my tractor. There were so many elderly people who needed help. We hooked up the generator to save their food, we hauled brush and got their driveways open. That's being a good neighbor.

"Josh Wooten wasn't out in the ditches with me," Dean growled. "He's full of prunes."

Dean was particularly incensed at Wooten's comments that the only contact from the Dean family was a call from Dean's son, Charlie Jr., trying to get the county contract for hauling away storm debris.

"That's taking a cheap shot at my son. That was totally uncalled for. That shows the level of integrity the man has. If I got something to say, I'll tell him to his face," he said, adding, "I agree with the things he's said, that he's only a used-car salesman.

"Frustration is one thing, but leadership means you're supposed to be in control of your emotions. It's a reflection of his leadership. He's trying to make it political."

Dean said that his son has been in the business of hauling debris for about six years and that he was letting the county know that he was available to help. "A lot of these contractors have been spread so thin. After Charley boomed into central Florida, they all went down there. Then with Frances, not many were available here."

Okay, so now everyone has had a chance to get that out of their systems. We can all agree that the past six weeks have been highly stressful for Floridians and that we all need to let off some steam.

Already, the chiefs at Progress Energy have admitted that they did not move as quickly as they could have to restore power to Citrus County following the storm. That admission must lead to significant changes in this essential part of the recovery process.

Clearly, the state emergency operations plan needs some fine-tuning, too. Even allowing for the incredible number of storms that have now affected all 67 of Florida's counties this summer, and the good work being performed by a lot of tired people, there were a lot of missed steps in the hours after Frances left us.

If and when the storm waters finally recede and the clouds clear, public safety officials from all over the state will assess their responses to the emergencies. Just as happens after every one of these events, the players will tweak the playbook.

While the county folks are criticizing the state, they should also take a look at their own shop. As we hear the stories of exhausted county workers at the EOC falling asleep at their desks, calling every restaurant in the phone book trying to find food, the thought occurs: That should never have happened.

When we hear that EOC officials were unable to relay vital information to Citrus residents because several local radio stations lost power and went off the air, is it unfair to ask: Doesn't the county's emergency plan envision the wholesale loss of electricity during a hurricane? What is our Plan B? Where were the emergency generators?

In no way should this be seen as criticism of the hundreds of county employees who worked around the clock for days on end in stressful and sometimes dangerous conditions, who stayed on the job even while their own families and property were in peril, who performed countless minor miracles every day to help their neighbors. No words can express the thanks of a grateful community to those unsung heroes for their extraordinary efforts.

But just as the county learned a lot from the infamous no-name storm of 1993, we must all take a sober assessment of our actions during this series of storms. That includes those residents who rushed out to get plywood and generators as the storm neared. We live in Florida, folks. Those items should have been part of your hurricane plans years ago.

We can all be better prepared. We can all stand to be a lot more self-reliant. We can all admit that living without electricity for a few days is tough but it is not the end of the world. We can all realize that as long as we live on a peninsula that juts into hurricane alley, we can expect to have storms slap us around.

So far, we have weathered everything that Mother Nature has thrown at us, more or less. Let's all try to be better for the experience.

Greg Hamilton can be reached at 860-7301 or e-mail at hamiltonsptimes.com.

Up next:CITRUS KIDS

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