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Hurricane 2019: What the Panhandle’s top emergency officials learned from Michael

Bay and Gulf counties were ravaged by a historic storm. This what their top emergency management leaders learned from Hurricane Michael.
Boats lay sunk and damaged at the Port St. Joe Marina in the Florida Panhandle on Oct. 10, as after Hurricane Michael made landfall near Mexico Beach. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times] [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Jun. 3
Updated Aug. 30

Last fall, the Panhandle suffered the worst-case scenario all of Florida fears:

Category-5 Hurricane Michael, the fourth-strongest hurricane by wind speed to ever strike the United States, the most powerful to ever hit the Panhandle, barrelled ashore. The destruction was absolute.

Bay County, where the hurricane’s eye made landfall near Mexico Beach, and its southeastern neighbor Gulf County, took the brunt of the storm. Entire communities were reduced to the kind of debris that had to be cleaned up by bulldozers.

HURRICANE SEASON IS HERE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane

AFTERMATH: 911 calls from Hurricane Michael paint horrifying picture of what it’s like to not evacuate

The storm was directly responsible for 16 deaths — seven in Florida — and indirectly responsible for the death of 43 Floridians, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s after-action report. It destroyed 1,500 structures in Bay County and 985 in Gulf County.

The historic storm inflicted $25 billion worth of damage — $18.4 billion suffered by Florida alone.

For many, even the most seasoned of Floridians, the strength of the storm and the damage it inflicted were unimaginable. For Bay County Emergency Management Division Chief Joby Smith and Gulf County Emergency Management Director Marshall Nelson, preparing for such a storm is in their job descriptions.

Eight months later, they tell the Tampa Bay Times what worked and what didn’t, and what emergency management officials across Florida can take away from their preparations for Michael and the ongoing recovery. The interviews were edited for clarity and length.

What did work according to plan?

Marshall Nelson: I think one of the main things that I can say about the community as a whole is immediately after the storm, when it was safe to get out, people started coming out, clearing the roads. Because we were completely shut down (with no power or communications). So immediately, they started clearing the roads, checking on their neighbors. We’re a very tight-knit community.

Gulf County Emergency Management Director Marshall Nelson. [JAMAL THALJI | Gulf County]

Whoever says that the United States is going down the tubes, they need to come and see something like this. … As far as Americans on the ground, nah, we’re still here.

Joby Smith: I think our public information was key to being able to provide the message as it evolved. We recently did a timeline and we had, I think, 73 hours (from the first hurricane advisory to landfall). … We started messaging as quickly as we could to let everybody know. … There were a lot of people that followed it and were able to make better decisions. Hopefully the public knew what they were in store for.

What didn’t work or go according to plan?

Nelson: The evacuation. People moving. … We put out mandatory evacuations. And we thought people were moving. But in the aftermath, we found out a lot of those people had not moved, and spent the day and the night in their attics. We had to send out responders to go out and get a lot of them, which I do not like to do.

Smith: The communications loss … the loss of broadband communications, cellular was really something that just caused issues to so many facets of our response, the public’s ability to make decisions after the storm had passed.

When people are hurting they need to be able to get clear, concise communications of where they can get help.… We were passing out fliers, we hired a banner plane to let people know where they could get food and water.

What have you changed?

Smith: We haven’t been able to focus solely on lessons learned and improvements, because we are still so deep into the recovery process right now, but we have made sure that we are going to have better satellite systems to be able to communicate from our emergency operations center. That’s one. So after the storm goes by hopefully we can re-establish communications a little bit quicker from our (center) than we did.

Bay County Emergency Management Division Chief Joby Smith. [JAMAL THALJI | Bay County]

Smith added: We’re also looking at putting in place some of our own logistics contracts to where we have items, equipment, things that normally we would have to wait on for the state to drive in for us. We’re going to try to have our contracts in place for this season to have some of those logistical needs — so we have generators, porta-potties, different kinds of comfort stations.

How are you preparing for this upcoming season?

Nelson: Praying, lot of praying.

Reiterating the importance of having a plan and making sure that everybody knows what their job is, whether you’re in the home, or you have a business, or if you’re in government. The way it works is, you take care of yourself first, then your family. Then you check on your neighbors. Then your neighborhood, or your subdivision.

Nelson added: That’s going to cut down on the need for resources that we’re going to have to put out.

Smith: We responded to a Category 5 hurricane in October of last year, so when it comes to learning and being able to manage the needs of a situation like that, I think that has put us well ahead of any type of classroom training that we could do. I think our citizens are hypersensitive of the messages that we put out now.

Smith added: I don’t believe any of us are second-guessing our abilities to respond to anything at this point.

What should other Floridians learn from what happened to you?

Nelson: A lot of people just sit back and go, ‘it’s not going to happen to us.’ But I’m here to tell you, plan for the worst, hope for the best. Because it can happen to you. I’ve been here all my life, and I didn’t think it could happen to me, even though I am an emergency manager.

Smith: People who didn’t live in those evacuation zones still suffered greatly because of the strength of the wind. They didn’t think they needed to leave, but they also need to watch the wind speeds and know what types of problems are caused by those high winds. They might need to leave, even if they’re not in that evacuation (zone). … The over-arching tone from what I hear from our public these days is they wish they would have left. And I don’t want people putting themselves through what our people had to go through.

Contact Josh Solomon at jsolomon@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4613. Follow @ByJoshSolomon. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.


2019 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide

HURRICANE SEASON IS HERE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane

PREPARE YOUR STUFF: Get your documents and your data ready for a storm

BUILD YOUR KIT: The stuff you’ll need to stay safe — and comfortable — for the storm

PROTECT YOUR PETS: Your pets can’t get ready for a storm. That’s your job

NEED TO KNOW: Click here to find your evacuation zone and shelter


What Michael taught the Panhandle and Tampa Bay

What the Panhandle’s top emergency officials learned from Michael

‘We’re not going to give up.’ What a school superintendent learned from Michael.

What Tampa Bay school leaders fear most from a storm

Tampa Bay’s top cops fear for those who stay behind

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