Escambia County’s Annual Hurricane Exercise was held Wednesday morning, in preparation for the season that kicks off next month.
The joint was jumping at the Escambia Emergency Operations Center on W Street. About 90 organizations — public safety, first responders, utilities, service groups and private firms — went through their paces testing equipment and reviewing procedures.
The scenario for 2019: Hurricane Smith is bearing down on Florida, with the entire state bracing for wherever and whenever the storm makes landfall, packing whatever.
“Presently, we typically use the [National] Hurricane Center’s information that’s provided [to] the state of Florida for the statewide hurricane exercise; this year, their focus in predominantly central and south Florida,” said Escambia County Public Safety Director John Dosh.
Instead, he says they took the National Hurricane Center’s blueprint and worked on some internal issues, focusing on response and recovery before and after a storm.
“Getting out there and getting debris out of the way; dealing with a lot of the damage and dealing with the FEMA components,” said Dosh. “And all those things associated with storms, storm activity and recovery, to try to massage some things and smooth things out and make things work like we think they should.”
Speaking to the room before the drill began, Dosh said there are new people who need to be brought up to speed, after replacing those who are retiring and taking their experience with them.
“Some of them, it’s the first time to be in the room with all the agencies together,” said Dosh. “We just kind of laid out some of the basic items – working together, communicating, collaborating, coordinating – the three C’s. And making sure that everybody understands that this is a team approach; we need to work together on any disaster that we’re having to deal with here locally.”
Last month, the hurricane research team at Colorado State University released its initial predictions for this year, and Director Phil Klotzbach says at this point it appears the U.S. may catch a break.
“We’re calling for a total of 13 named storms; of the 13, five becoming hurricanes and of those five, two becoming major Category-3, 4,5, hurricanes – winds of 111 mph or greater,” said Klotzbach. “An average season has about six hurricanes and three major hurricanes – just a little bit below the long-term average.”
As for a possible reason for the lower anticipated numbers, Klotzbach says you need to look to the west.
“Right now we have a weak El Nino in place in the eastern and tropical Pacific; that’s warmer than normal waters,” Klotzbach said. Typically what that does it increases the upper-level winds in the Caribbean; it tends to shear apart hurricanes as they’re trying to develop and intensify.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is scheduled to roll out its storm predictions on May 23. Forecaster Gerry Bell says it's not the number of storms that form, but rather where they track. Exhibit-A, he says, is the 1992 season.
“There was a two-week period, when conditions were conducive, and that’s when [Hurricane] Andrew formed and devastated south Florida," Bell said. “I just reiterate that hurricane preparedness is so key, even when we’re predicting less activity that doesn’t mean no activity.”
Prepping for the 2019 season comes seven months after Hurricane Michael blasted parts of the Florida Panhandle, the first Category 5 storm to hit the contiguous United States since Andrew in 1992. But Dosh says Michael has not changed the paradigm.
“No, I think we’ve always had a very strong urge to get ready; to be ready,” said Escambia County’s John Dosh. “But when you’re dealing with a catastrophic storm of that magnitude, people ask me if my community’s ready for a Category-5; I have to say no, we’re not. And when I say ‘community,’ I’m talking not only government but I’m talking about the private sector and citizens.”
Dosh’s annual mantra heading into hurricane season has been — and remains — have a plan.
“What happens if we lose our house? What happens if we lose our business, lose employment?” said Dosh. “We’ve got to constantly ask ourselves about Plan-B and Plan-C. There’s some support from FEMA, but that’s just what I call ‘seed money’ to help you get going again. It’s not going to make you whole. There’s a lot of businesses that never come back at a result of not being prepared.”
The takeaway from Wednesday’s drill, Dosh is hoping, is that participants will have an idea of what worked well and what needs more work.
“That’s something we’re constantly going through, an evaluation process,” Dosh said. “We do things and then we evaluate it; we try to come up with strategies to make it better. And then we test it again and evaluate it. It’s a constant evolutionary process to make things better.”
Hurricane season in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico kicks off June 1 and runs through November 30. For more weather information, visit floridastorms.org.