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Learning from his experiences

It's not a matter of "if," but "when" a major catastrophic event will hit your area.

And Greg Brown would know, having managed through two major disasters as Santa Rosa County's property appraiser. The first was Hurricane Ivan in 2004; the second Hurricane Dennis in 2005.

Brown was in Largo on Thursday morning to share his experiences with officials and employees from Pinellas County. He was invited by his Pinellas counterpart, property appraiser Jim Smith.

Government must be prepared, Brown said. And preparation doesn't begin at the start of hurricane season, it's a yearlong process.

"I've taken it very seriously to impart our experience with others," Brown said. "By sharing the experience, we can help each other prepare."

After Hurricane Ivan struck in September 2004, Santa Rosa County lost nearly 12 percent of its tax roll, Brown said. It caused $1.3-billion in property damage, creating a $10-million loss in tax revenue.

"I wish I could tell you all I saw," Brown told about 100 county employees and officials in attendance.

"You get prepared. If you have one (a disaster plan), hopefully, you will be a little more prepared."

After a disaster, getting an estimate of damaged property is critical in determining how quickly and how much state and federal funding can be funneled to an area.

"These tragedies, they don't forecast when they are going to come," Smith said. "So, you have to be ready on all fronts. Pinellas County is ahead of most in the state, but it's always good to talk to someone who has been there, done that and bought the shirt."

Gary Vickers, Pinellas County director of emergency management, said the county is engaged with the topic all year long.

"We never stop. It's never over. That's our primary business," he said.

Brown went through a list of challenges he and emergency officials encountered, and he offered solutions on how to avoid them.

Through a PowerPoint presentation, the audience heard actual 911 calls that came to emergency dispatchers while Hurricane Ivan's eye was coming across Santa Rosa County, located in the state's Panhandle. One woman called several times, saying that her house was flooding and that she didn't want to die of drowning.

"Prior planning prevents poor performance," Brown said.

Among Brown's common-sense suggestions about preparedness was knowing how long it takes to back up computer data, which is important because storms may intensify quickly, leaving little time.

He also suggested the county:

- Back up personal files and secure offsite storage for them.

- Upgrade cell phones so they operate on emergency traffic channels.

- Make sure its Web sites can be hosted from a location outside the area.

- Have food on hand that doesn't need cooking.

- Have jackets and hats that identify the organization.

He also suggested the county "push the decision-making process as far down as you can."

"This allows people to make decisions quickly," Brown said. "Make sure everyone knows what to do ... You don't think about this stuff unless a storm hits."

Bob Ballou, division chief for St. Petersburg Fire & Rescue's emergency management and administration division, said the presentation was helpful.

"It's nice to hear someone talking from direct experience, and it's important for any community to know that there is a plan," Ballou said. "Now is when we are planning and going to these seminars to take from them lessons learned."

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or dalee@sptimes.com.

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