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Officials, coastal residents discuss ways to improve storm preparedness

BROOKSVILLE — A visible testament to the vulnerability of those who live on the water, residential streets in coastal Hernando County for days have been piled with sopping carpet and padding, splintered drywall, soaked furniture and branches — lots of branches.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Hermine, which made landfall miles away in the Panhandle on Sept. 2, residents have grappled with cleanup, insurance claims and waste-hauling issues. And some have focused on whether they could have been better prepared for a storm that got stronger as it grew nearer and surprised some people with its potential for flooding and destruction.

Would a different warning system have convinced some people to evacuate or better prepare their property?

That's a question that top county officials discussed this week after emergency management director Cecilia Patella gave a lengthy report to the County Commission on how her office prepared for Hermine, notified residents and responded to damages in the storm's aftermath.

While numerous ideas of what a better system might include were discussed, commissioners agreed to talk more about the possibility of installing a siren warning system along the coast after figuring out how much it might cost. They also agreed that better education regarding preparedness should be a major emphasis as officials critique their storm response and consider improvements.

Commissioners who stepped in to assist with the recovery effort said they received an earful from residents who were concerned that they did not realize how bad the storm surge could be — some who have minimal connection with the outside world.

Commissioner Diane Rowden told the tale of an 81-year-old resident of Palm Grove Colony, one of the many residents near the Gulf of Mexico who did not evacuate and did not know how dangerous the conditions might become.

"One of the issues that we have out there, we have some very vulnerable residents,'' Rowden said, noting that many of the methods that Patella's staff uses to notify residents of storm threats — including social media and telephone alerts — do not reach people who don't answer their home phones or have cell phones, or who do not use social media.

Rowden brought the siren idea to the commission because she wanted to hear more debate about that and other ideas regarding how to better warn residents of rising floodwaters.

Many people who use just cell phones also wouldn't be notified if they did not register their cell phones with emergency management. Commissioner Wayne Dukes noted that, at a recent Hernando Beach Property Owners Association meeting, about 80 percent of the packed crowd said they use cell phones exclusively.

"I believe a siren system is absolutely essential,'' Hernando Beach resident Margo McConnell told commissioners.

She said that simply relying on phone calls or social media will not fix the problem. A multifaceted notification system needs to be put in place, she said.

Commission Chairman Jim Adkins voiced some concern about having an intrusive siren system for notification. He said he could see some value for immediate dangerous situations, such as tornadoes, dams that could burst, or active shooting scenarios. Tropical systems, however, are known for days before they threaten land, he said.

"My concern is, if it is done, who is going to active it, and when will it be activated," Adkins said.

"I support the siren concept,'' said Chuck Greenwell, who heads the government affairs committee for the Hernando Beach Property Owners Association.

With the storm fresh in everyone's mind, he said, the community and officials need to share ideas now so that, in the future, fewer people will be caught off guard.

"If we all work together," Greenwell said, "we can do better next time.''

Contact Barbara Behrendt at or (352) 848-1434.