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DeWitt: When it comes to storm preparedness, responsibility rests with all

Florida storms are like spoiled children in that we're bombarded with images documenting every step of their development — birth, naming, graduations from depression to tropical storm to hurricane, the path they take in life.

They are literally on the radar all that time.

So is it really possible for one of them to slip under it?

Yes, it is, at least according to some people in coastal Hernando County.

No warning.

That was their claim the morning of Sept. 2 as they sorted through soaked storage boxes and furniture after the storm surge from Hurricane Hermine forced as much as 2 feet of water into some coastal homes.

They have said the same thing in public meetings and will no doubt repeat it at community gatherings planned before Oct. 25, when the County Commission will discuss whether to install warning sirens on the coast or take other measures to alert residents.

On one level, this claim is nonsense, a sign that the people making it don't just live in 1970s-era stucco homes; they live under rocks.

Including the no-name storm in 1993 and Tropical Storm Josephine in 1996, Hermine is at least the third significant tidal flood since I moved here in 1989.

The victims almost all live in ground-level homes that would never be allowed to be built today. And in some cases — thanks to the county's misguided benevolence after previous storms — the homes should never have been allowed to be rebuilt.

It may be useless to hit these residents with another news flash considering their apparent tendency to ignore them, but here goes: If you live in a ground-level home on the coast of Hernando, your house will periodically get wet.

And here's some more news: It's going to happen a lot more often.

The week after the storm hit, the New York Times published an investigative piece about the impacts of global warming on the country's coastline that reached the following conclusion:

"Those warnings (of sea-level rise) are no longer theoretical: The inundation of the coast has begun. The sea has crept up to the point that a high tide and a brisk wind are all it takes to send water pouring into streets and homes."

This means the people in vulnerable houses owe it to themselves — and to communities that must devote resources to storm recovery — to be on high alert for every bit of storm news available.

And in the days before Hermine, there was plenty of it.

Hernando County Emergency Management, under the supervision of Sheriff Al Nienhuis, posted warnings on its website, a Facebook page, on lighted signs next to coastal roads, on radio and television, and in automated phone messages to coastal residents.

At least some of these messages told residents "you will see flooding," and they "should consider evacuating to higher ground ahead of the storm."

This does not mean emergency management director Cecilia Patella's response was exemplary. As inevitable as such coastal floods may be, it has, after all, been 20 years since the last one. You'd think, especially considering the Sheriff's Office's generous overall budget and the $347,000 devoted to emergency management, that Hermine would have triggered the highest level of alert.

Longtime Hernando Beach resident Dwayne Adams, who owns a home and a business (neither of which were flooded inside), said he heard the phone message but didn't take it seriously because he didn't see deputies in patrol cars, didn't hear their direct warnings of an impending flood.

That probably would have happened with what Patella described to the commission on Tuesday as an "all hands on deck" response. And it should have happened.

A lot of other residents said they never received the phone message. Patella said after her presentation Tuesday that the list of phone numbers is maintained by a private company, and she is not sure if the numbers are current and able to accept automated messages.

Checking this out before storms hit — that's something else that should have happened.

My overall feeling is that we don't need sirens. We need an emergency management staff that is a little more on the ball.

And we need the same from coastal residents.

The county can only deliver the warnings, after all. It's up to the people to heed them.

Contact Dan DeWitt at ddewitt@tampabay.com. Follow @ddewitttimes.

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