TAMPA — Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill’s “worst case scenario” nearly came to life when Hurricane Irma played chicken with Hillsborough County’s Emergency Management staff in August 2017.
Meteorologists’ spaghetti models stoked anxieties that Tampa Bay would become “ground zero” for a direct hit from the most powerful Atlantic storm ever recorded. TV news personalities flocked to Bayshore Boulevard for live broadcasts, warning viewers about the inevitability of disaster for a region that hadn’t been hit by a major hurricane since 1921. And Tampa's then-Mayor Bob Buckhorn took to Twitter with an ominous message for Hillsborough County residents: “We are about to get punched in the face by this storm. We need to be prepared.”
But it was the weeks of preparing that made Merrill nervous for what would happen next, when the storm finally hit, he said. He recognized the burnout on the faces of employees who were preparing for a major disaster without a script; without proper training or coordination. There were still too many questions being asked too late in the game. And even though the county got lucky in the end, as Irma suddenly shifted course sparing the county from a direct hit, it was a scenario that should have never been left up to luck, Merrill said.
“Everybody worked really hard during Irma, but when we got to the big day they were all burned out because we didn’t have that strong base of planning and programs that could play out," Merrill said. “Preparing for the worst means really having a strong foundation in place. That means having the right kind of people with the right training in the right positions with the right resources to tackle any scenario."
In the two years since Hurricane Irma terrorized Tampa Bay, the county's Emergency Management Division has undergone a complete overhaul, bringing in new staff, new training and new facilities.
After the department's director retired earlier this year, Merrill said the county launched a nationwide search for a new leader willing to lay a new foundation for the department. Last month, Merrill said he finally found the right man for the job — Pinellas County’s former Senior Emergency Management Coordinator, Timothy Dudley Jr.
Dudley holds a bachelor’s degree in Homeland Security from American Military University, a master’s in Emergency Services Management from Columbia Southern University, and an Executive Leadership Certificate from Cornell University. Already, Dudley's knowledge of Pinellas’ operations have already helped the two regions better coordinate their efforts, just as the county’s partnership with national and regional agencies has been strengthened by Dudley’s background as the Operations Sergeant Major at U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Merrill said.
"My first day at work was April 1, and since then I've been meeting back to back with our emergency partners, going over everyone's roles and responsibilities and having good dialogue about where we can find opportunities to become more resilient," Dudley said. "We're getting them to think about how they can help the businesses and communities in neighboring counties all get back online after a storm so we can all transition together as a connected region, leveraging resources and building a strong communications platform so none of us have to depend on federal or state assistance to bounce back as quickly as possible."
That will be key to tackling major flaws in the county's emergency preparedness that came to light during an independent audit of the department's frenetic performance during Hurricane Irma.
The audit showed that Hillsborough County weathered Irma with a Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan that Merrill said wasn't even filled out completely, only meeting the bare minimum of the state mandated requirements. Staff that would later be relied upon to coordinate cleanup, emergency dispatch and other hurricane recovery efforts seemed so exhausted by the time the storm hit because they had spent weeks filling and hauling sandbags to meet a demand far too great for the number of available bodies, according to the audit.
And while emergency shelters were ready to house residents during Irma, they were staffed and stocked to a level that barely withstood the few days they needed to stay open. Had the storm been any stronger, or if more people traveled to Hillsborough County seeking shelter, the county would have quickly exhausted its supply of generators, backup battery systems, staffing and basic provisions like food, water, medicine and first aid supplies, Merrill said.
As county officials braced for Irma in a months-old, $36 million storm-rated Public Safety Operations Complex, the independent review found that the county had completely neglected to harden its four “field operations centers” — the main hubs of operations for “disaster assessment teams” ready to tackle public works and public utilities tasks like removing downed trees or rebuilding drains and roads destroyed by a storm.
Had the county been hit by even a Category 1 hurricane, let alone a Category 5-level Irma, those four buildings would have been flattened, knocking out county services completely, Merrill said.
“After Irma our highest priority was making sure our employees were well trained and practiced, upgrading all of our shelters, making sure they’re strong and well provisioned with generators and backup systems — because even if we’re not affected, we’re the place where people evacuate too," Merrill said. “I wanted to be sure that, in the worst-case scenario or even the event of other storms affecting the rest of the state, Hillsborough County had as much of everything we need to be self-sufficient."
The county has bolstered it's existing field operations centers since Irma, but has also begun the process of building four brand-new field operations centers build to withstand the most violent Category 5 storms. The Emergency Management Department, which has an annual budget of about $3.19 million, has also hired new staff, revamped the department’s operating procedures and established proper training and practice programs ahead of this year's hurricane season, Merrill said.
Some fixes have come relatively quickly, Merrill said, like the county’s recent discovery and purchase of an “automatic sand bagging machine” that has allowed staff to stockpile sand bags with little to no staff effort. But others will take a fundamental shift in the county’s planning process to fully address issues of sustainability, Merrill said. In the year ahead, the county commission’s biggest concerns include bolstering the redundancy and resiliency of the county’s solid waste and wastewater systems, storm water drainage systems and wastewater pump stations, which are powered by the region’s electrical grid.
“We’re not going to wait to make these kinds of changes anymore,” Merrill said. “We need to be well trained and exercised in rolling these plans out at any moment, and we’ve gone through a lot of work to finally get there.”
Contact Anastasia Dawson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.