What hurricanes can teach Florida about dealing with other threats | Editorial
How does the state prepare for unforeseen disasters?
Flooding lingers at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on April 13 after heavy rain pounded South Florida.  (Joe Cavaretta /South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)
Flooding lingers at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on April 13 after heavy rain pounded South Florida. (Joe Cavaretta /South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP) [ JOE CAVARETTA | AP ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Sept. 19, 2023

Floridians have one benefit living in Hurricane Alley: The state has become enormously capable of managing these storms. But what about disasters that don’t present themselves days in advance — like tornadoes, flooding or a condominium collapse? These present unique dangers to this crowded, coastal state, and authorities last week took a good step toward confronting the unknown.

Elected officials and emergency managers gathered in South Florida on Friday to discuss resilience and rescue operations. State and local officials agreed that Florida knows how to respond to hurricanes. A tougher task is managing the unexpected, as the South Florida Sun Sentinel described in a report from the meeting.

“There’s so many different types of emergencies. We seem to have the hurricane one down pat because we practice that all the time,” said Democratic state Rep. Christine Hunschofsky, who represents northwest Broward County. But as Kevin Guthrie, who heads Florida’s Division of Emergency Management, asked those assembled: “How are you at the no-notice event?”

Hurricanes are large, unpredictable storms that can rapidly intensify and change direction as they near landfall. But modern forecasting generally provides residents and authorities with days to prepare, arming Floridians with hurricane warnings, evacuation maps and other data to make informed decisions.

What Florida hasn’t drilled so thoroughly for are disasters that rear in the moment, from tornadoes and surprise flooding to catastrophic building failures, such as the collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside in 2021, which killed 98 people. Scores of officials brainstormed last week over how to better respond to such tragedies, and a few sensible ideas emerged.

Communicate. The state’s communication plan for hurricanes is simple and effective. The governor flies to communities in the path to warn residents and to reassure them that help is coming when the storm is over. Local officials get out the word on sandbags, evacuations and shelters. It may sound mundane, but people turn to government in times of crisis for clear advice and words of support. Officials need to be visible, clear and authoritative — and that’s doubly important when the unexpected happens.

Delegate. Governors and mayors should stick to messaging and let their professionals in emergency management see to the details. Emergency management operations have come a long way in recent years. Elected officials should support these agencies but resist the temptation to micromanage every aspect of a disaster response. The best generals listen to their commanders in the field, and there’s no time in these emergencies to disrupt the chain of command that an orderly response relies on.

Prioritize. No crisis evaporates overnight. With any disaster, officials need to restore the basics (water, power, communications) and provide a safe environment to recover. Guthrie, the state’s disaster chief, urged attendees at the gathering to “think very simple” in establishing priorities. Are disabled cars blocking roadways? Are blocked drain lines worsening flooding? How can government better target its resources, or enlist the private sector, to get communities more quickly back on their feet?

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Preparation is key, but so is learning from every disaster to see what might work better next time. Florida may be on its game with hurricanes, but this changing climate poses a range of threats that this growing state must manage.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.