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State emergency chief criticizes local preparedness as Hurricane Michael approaches

“I am extremely concerned that the delays we are seeing with local efforts will result in a dangerous situation,” emergency management director Wes Maul wrote.
Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Wes Maul looks at Gov. Rick Scott during a hurricane briefing at the state emergency operations center Tuesday. (Miami Herald)
Published Oct. 9, 2018

Hurricane Michael is forecast to be one of the most destructive storms to come ashore in the Panhandle in decades, but the state's emergency management chief is accusing local officials of not sufficiently preparing for the storm.

Wes Maul, the director of the state's division of emergency management, sent an email late Monday night to state legislators, county officials and mayors statewide saying state emergency management staff had not received "nearly the volume of mission requests that the current scenario would normally dictate" ahead of Michael's arrival.

"We saw hardly any requests for critical commodities, local officials were still debating whether or not to close businesses and schools, and we barely heard anything regarding sheltering considerations," Maul wrote, adding the state had been "absolutely prepared" for those requests. "The same can be said for evacuation plans—all while a major hurricane bears down on our shores."

"I am extremely concerned that the delays we are seeing with local efforts will result in a dangerous situation," he continued in the email, which was first reported by Politico Florida. "We have known for days that, regardless of size, we would see a significant storm impact in the Florida Panhandle and Big Bend. Yet here we sit at 10:00 pm, less than 24 hours from the onset of tropical storm force winds in advance of a major hurricane and with little to no sheltering and evacuation operations yet begun."

Hurricane Michael, which forecasters expect to make landfall around Panama City Wednesday, has forced mandatory evacuation orders for coastal or low-lying areas for nearly a dozen counties as of Tuesday, according to the state emergency web site: Bay, Citrus, Dixie, Franklin, Gulf, Jackson, Levy, Okaloosa, Taylor, Wakulla and Walton. Officials have also issued voluntary evacuation orders for parts of several other counties, including Calhoun, Gadsden, Hernando, Jefferson, Leon, Liberty, Pasco and Santa Rosa.

But Maul said some areas had been delayed issuing orders as well as taking other actions to prepare potentially affected regions for the hurricane.

"Most do not intend to begin their life safety operations until after lunch [Tuesday], leaving precious few hours for families to prepare their property and seek shelter outside the life threatening impact zone," he wrote.

He also wrote that he had told local officials multiple times that if they "did not get their mission and commodity requests in [by Monday night], it is unlikely that we can fulfill those requests before the onset of the storm."

Maul's warning to local officials echoed concerns he raised to staff members in Tallahassee earlier Tuesday about shelters coming online at the last minute. In neighboring Wakulla County, no shelters are opening at all because its shelters are only rated safe for Category 2 storms.

Michael is expected to reach at least Category 3 in strength, with winds potentially beyond 110 mph.

The state has had its own storm-related issues too. The state emergency web site — which provides information on information on road closings, evacuation routes, power outages, flood zones and county shelter operations — had technical issues through Monday and as recently as Tuesday morning. Richard Butgereit, the state's disaster agency chief information officer, said at a Monday briefing that workers were also complaining about the Wi-Fi at the EOC and were bringing in their own wireless devices during a state of emergency.

When asked if Maul remained concerned about local efforts Tuesday afternoon, Division of Emergency Management spokesman Alberto Moscoso said: "Director Maul will continue to stress the need for urgency from county officials who are in charge of evacuations and sheltering operations."