Hurricane Irma last year left Hernando County with lots of flooding and downed trees, but also lessons about what to do better if another storm hits the area this year.
About a month into hurricane season, the Tampa Bay Times spoke with county staff members about how they are improving services — and what residents can do to stay informed in case of severe weather.
The county and school district worked together to house more than 5,000 people in six local schools during Irma, but emergency management director Cecilia Patella suggested areas for improvement.
One problem was an overabundance of pets needing shelter when the county planned to open only one facility to animals. The high demand forced staff to ask the school district at the last minute to open two more pet-friendly shelters. In all, the county housed more than 700 pets of eight different species.
This year, Patella said, the county is prepared to open more pet shelters, if necessary. But it will be a heavy lift.
"The challenge we have is getting the equipment that we need to make shelters pet-friendly," Patella said, including durable floor covering material, additional cages and bowls for water and food.
The county is purchasing those supplies little by little, but it's "financially challenging," she said. "We encourage pet owners to think about Irma, about what happened and how they can better prepare."
Pets or not, Patella said, all residents who plan to use county shelters should bring items that might make them more comfortable. Other than one shelter equipped to serve the elderly and people with special needs, she said, the county will not provide cots or other commodities.
She suggested air mattresses, folding chairs, pillows and blankets, and sleeping bags. The school district will provide meals, but residents with dietary restrictions should bring their own food, she said. Weapons and alcohol are not permitted inside shelters, and medication must be in correctly labeled prescription bottles.
"It's a lifeboat, not a cruise ship," Patella said. "Residents need to be as self-sufficient as possible."
One major complaint of county commissioners was the slow pace of debris pick-up after the storm by contractor Grubbs Emergency Services. The county brought in a second contractor after reports that subcontractors working for Grubbs and other firms across the state were leaving to work in South Florida, where reimbursements were higher.
County deputy administrator Jeff Rogers urged the commission last month to keep the three debris-removal companies already approved for this storm season. He said he knew some "didn't perform," but said county staff can choose which company to call first from the list.
"We will make sure that when we award contracts, that they are able to perform," Rogers said.
The county moved responsibility for debris removal from the solid waste division to public works, led by Scott Herring, who has experience in hauling. Herring is rewriting specifications for the next bid, in hopes of finding companies that do a better job.
Commission Chairman Steve Champion wasn't happy with the arrangement. Other communities handled debris removal differently, he said, allowing anyone with a valid business license and insurance to haul debris and getting the work done in a fraction of the time.
"We had a big problem last time," he said. "I'm not really too big on awarding a contract to someone who failed us."
Herring said that problems in Hernando were similar to those experienced across the state.
"To get reimbursed for this big ticket item," he said, "we have to have contracts in place before the storm."
The county recognized shortfalls in communication after Hurricane Hermine in 2016, Patella said. Staff implemented an emergency notification system called Alert Hernando ahead of Irma and have continued growing it since.
The system sends phone calls, texts and emails to residents about weather and other emergency events. It automatically pushes out information from the National Weather Service, Patella said.
Residents can register for alerts online, at www.AlertHernando.org, and specify the type and frequency of notifications they receive. However, all subscribers receive messages about hurricanes, tropical storms and tornado warnings, she said.
Unlike surrounding counties, Hernando did not alter evacuation zones this year, Patella said. That's in part because the county sometimes bypasses them for efficiency during big storms.
"Zones are good for people to know, but if it's going to be a bigger storm, we're likely going to use boundary lines that residents can relate to and understand and respond to," she said, referencing the mandatory evacuation ordered for households west of U.S. 19 during Irma.
No one knows when another monstrous storm might hit Hernando, Patella said, so residents should ready for any type of emergency that might require them to evacuate or do without electricity.
"This is a good time to replenish supplies, check batteries, change out canned goods and stock up on water," she said. "Think about the bigger picture and do your due diligence make sure you're prepared."
Contact Megan Reeves at email@example.com. Follow @mareevs.