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Report sets out recommendations for improved storm response, management

Bayou Drive off Pine Island Drive in Bayport was submerged during  Hurricane Hermine in September.
Bayou Drive off Pine Island Drive in Bayport was submerged during Hurricane Hermine in September.
Published Dec. 21, 2016

BROOKSVILLE — In the darkness, as Hurricane Hermine churned in the Gulf of Mexico in early September, coastal Hernando County residents watched as roads became rivers. Their cars flooded, water ran down the hallways of their homes and trees in their yards were ripped apart.

On social media during the storm, and in conversations and presentations afterward with county officials, the residents raised questions about the county's warning system and the response during and after the disaster, in which nearly 200 property owners reported either major or minor damage.

They weren't the only ones critiquing the job done by the county's emergency managers, public safety officials and local governments and agencies.

About two weeks after the storm, emergency management grants specialist Scott Frederick invited more than 60 county, public safety and agency representatives to an "after action" meeting to talk about what went well and what didn't during Hermine. Sheriff's officials said this week that only a handful of people participated.

The product of the get-together, and other information gathered during and after the storm, is formalized in a document titled "Hurricane Hermine After Action Report/Action Plan." And while parts of the plan pertain to jobs assigned to county workers, it wasn't until last week, when the Tampa Bay Times sought a copy of the 29-page document — and was told initially that the report was too sensitive to release — that anyone in county government, including the county administrator, was even aware of its existence.

Sheriff Al Nienhuis, who oversees emergency management, said that the report was meant to be an internal document and that, if other county officials had an interest in participating in improving storm response, they would have participated in the process. (See related story, top right of front page.)

The action plan details 23 areas for improvement, many already hinted at by the public criticisms and questions from residents.

According to Nienhuis and Cecilia Patella, the county's emergency management director, a number of the issues already have been addressed. Others are under consideration, and some will be talked about in discussions about hurricane preparedness next year and beyond. Patella noted that, in the report, she was critical even of small issues, to be sure no opportunity for improvement was missed.

One of the common themes of the critique was breakdowns in communications.

The sheriff's Emergency Operations Center in Brooksville, which serves as command central for all information and response during a storm, lost reliable wireless service during Hermine, the plan noted. In addition, the phone number for Emergency Management was ringing in their offices, and not in the EOC.

Up-to-date contact lists for county employees involved in the event and for shelter coordinators were not available, and an easier way to distribute EOC contact information to field teams is also needed, according to the critique.

In addition, several references were made to the public messages going out to and coming in from residents and agency partners during the storm. Emergency management "experienced difficulty in meeting the increased demand for timely and accurate information from internal and external partners," it noted. Recommendations included having a dedicated public information officer covering the EOC before and during the event.

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Other recommendations included establishing a daily schedule for releasing information, training public information officers to better support EOC operations, and developing a strategy to coordinate information with the public information officers from the Sheriffs Office, the school district, the county and the Health Department.

Nienhuis said he had made the recommendation that "brief, summarized information, in bullet format, is needed to support messages posted to Facebook and other social media platforms."

He said the long pages of information that are produced during a storm might be difficult to read on small electronic devices and that bulleting critical information, such as the forecast of the 3- to 5-foot storm surge during Hermine — which some coastal residents say they had not heard — might better convey the most important facts about an impending disaster.

There was another observation regarding comments received on social media and how they are handled.

"Additional consideration is given to perceived negative comments received on social media in order to gather more information, but the negative comments are not responded to as quickly as positive comments," the document states.

It was recommended that EOC personnel "consider responding to negative comments more quickly with a commitment to research the issue and provide the resident with answers."

Other areas for improvement listed in the report included training county Building Department employees to not self-deploy to do damage assessments; familiarizing the city of Brooksville with the EOC, including an informational workshop and a tour; making sure that responses to electric utility issues are directed to the correct utility company; finding additional methods to shelter pets during a storm; and expanding advance planning for debris pickup before a storm hits.

There also were questions raised by residents and in the critique about the failure of the Sheriff's Code Red notification system to contact some residents.

Nienhuis and Patella said they have updated their website to make signing up for the emergency calls easier, and they have been distributing signup cards at well-attended public events.

Contact Barbara Behrendt at bbehrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

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