Looking Through the Eye of a Storm

Deputies in the Florida Keys benefit from mankind's latest technology in a battle against primal nature.

by / February 28, 1999

Packing 125-mph winds, Hurricane George slammed the Florida Keys. A house was thrust over a seawall in Key West when the tidal surge pummeled the island chain. (photo by Drew Dixon)

The good thing about hurricanes is that you know they are coming. The bad thing about hurricanes is that you know they are coming. For one South Florida sheriff's department, a week in mid-September was a days-long reminder of that dichotomy.

Monroe County has a peculiar geography, encompassing that moist chunk of South Florida real estate known as the Everglades, then stretching down Highway A1A to the very tip of the state. For sheriff's deputies, it has always been an interesting challenge to watch over the sparsely populated Everglades and the 42-island Florida Keys, ending with Key West, just 90 miles north of Cuba. Within its borders, the sheriff's department protects 80,000 residents, a number that can swell to more than 250,000 on a good holiday weekend.

As part of a larger high-tech experiment, the Two-Eyes intelligence project, financed by a $187,000 science and technology development grant from the U.S. Department of Justice's National Institute for Justice, Monroe County has begun linking its field deputies with a wide area network accessed through desktop machines or laptop computers. So far, only 13 laptops are in operation, but when Mother Nature turned her angry gaze on the Keys in September, they were a key ingredient in preserving order and saving lives.

A Fragile Strand

The islands have tantalized visitors for more than 100 years. Their beauty leads a fragile existence -- late each summer, the tropical storms start swirling into tighter and tighter spirals throughout the Caribbean, and residents, tourists and officials become joined in the common occupation of watching the storm tracks. It had been many years since the Keys suffered more than a glancing blow and, as the season wound down, it seemed they might be spared again.

Then Hurricane Georges began its island rampage, wreaking a week's worth of havoc throughout the Caribbean before it turned its eye toward Key West. A tense daily vigil began.

Evacuating 40,000 people from anywhere is a daunting task; evacuating 40,000 people from a chain of islands linked by a single highway, often only two lanes wide, is so difficult it is humbling. But by Sept. 23, that is exactly what Monroe County deputies knew they had to do.

Hurricane Georges, a category-two storm, had already leveled homes on dozens of Caribbean islands, leaving hundreds of thousands of people exposed to the elements, when the decision was made to begin evacuating the Keys. Within a few hours, sturdy laptop computers mounted in several deputies patrol cars began making their presence felt.

The storm and evacuation required a dramatic increase in the number of deputies on patrol, which meant more voices cluttering up the traditional channel of law enforcement communications, the radio. During the evacuation, the shift jumped from the standard five deputies to 25. With more deputies on duty, there were more assignments being handed out by supervisors, more changes in areas that deputies were covering and more requests for information coming to dispatchers. The laptops -- a mixture of units purchased from PC Mobile Cycomm and MicroSlate -- each cost the sheriff's department about $9,000 to bring into operation. Still, they are among the most durable products on the market, withstanding the rigors of use during the storm and helping route many of those extra communications off the normal radio.

Each laptop either has a touch screen or pen-based touch screen, letting officers move from field to field with a single tap on an on-screen icon. Eight of the units make their connections through a UHF radio band while the other five utilize cellular digital packet data connections (CDPD). The laptops are able to access the Internet, the Miami-Dade Police Department network, and the Florida Criminal Information Center and National Criminal Information Center computer networks. Monroe County's tech guru said the CDPD-equipped computers could access information much more quickly than the UHF machines.

"I am definitely sold on CDPD. It is so much faster when accessing the Internet or networks that there is really no choice between CDPD and UHF -- for us, CDPD is the best possible route," said Dep. Terry Armstrong, the department's director of information management. "In both cases though, having the laptops in the field was invaluable before, during and after Georges; not life-and-death, maybe, but it saved time and allowed a lot of less-than-emergency communications to be routed off of the radio."

Too many radio users produces not only babble, but slow service, Armstrong added.

"When you have a lot of users on the radio, you can end up having to wait for a turn just to get on," he said. "That waiting time means that you are not able to be doing the job at the same time. For my officers with laptops, there was no waiting, and it relieved the backlog for other users and lightened the load on dispatchers."

Angry Eye

The evacuation was conducted according to a plan that had to take into account that the only egress was A1A. To prevent a world-class traffic jam that would have been frustrating and dangerous, the county moved people out of the endangered area in waves.

Nonresidents went first, then a sweep was made to evacuate all of the Keys' state parks. Next, the extremely vulnerable residents in mobile-home parks were ordered out. The last step: starting with the southernmost islands and evacuating them one by one. When one island was emptied, the public safety agencies moved to the next island and started evacuating there, all while continuing their normal law enforcement duties. Once again, laptop computers lent a digital hand.

With direct access to information that previously would have to have been requested from one of the overloaded dispatchers, deputies in the field could run checks on persons, vehicles, property, wants and warrants, weapons and even pawn-shop records. During the evacuation, checks on persons and vehicles helped deputies tell nonresidents from residents and watch for bad guys with outstanding warrants.

On Sept. 25, the storm began to thrash the islands with a vengeance. While the eye hovered over Key West, the most developed and heavily populated island, 125-mile-an-hour winds strafed islands further north such as Marathon and Cudjoe Key. Even in Key West, the least affected of the southern islands, damage was immense. Throughout the Middle and Lower Keys, toppled trees were flung hundreds of feet through the air, and the sea rose to almost biblical proportions, reclaiming the land and flooding A1A with several feet of water. Winds literally ripped homes inside out, flinging mobile homes around as easily as you might toss an empty soda can into a recycling bin.

"If you don't live here, it is hard to imagine the difference since Georges. Trees are gone that were here for centuries, areas where the woods came up to the road are now barren; there were piles of debris larger than three-story buildings," Armstrong said. The toll was calculated at $500 million in property losses, with 3,000 homes damaged or destroyed. Power was out for weeks. "It could have been worse. No one died. Our evacuations went well, with the help of the computers, and we got everyone that would leave out of the storm's path."

After the Storm

In the aftermath, deputies and their laptop computers still had work to do. Everyone in South Florida saw what happened after Hurricane Andrew hit a few years earlier, when looters and con artists flooded hard-hit areas immediately after the storm. Monroe County was determined not to let that happen and had the advantage of the Keys' narrow route of entry.

Naturally, residents wanted to return home as quickly as possible once the danger had passed, and with all phone communications cut off, their sense of urgency was increased. With their direct connection to databases of law enforcement and other government agencies, deputies checked the identification and auto information of every person wanting to get into the Keys. If you weren't a resident, you were turned back. Post-storm crime was minimal.

Since Georges, the Keys have been cleaned up. The laptops, though, continue to prove their value.

"I couldn't work without one now," said Dep. Christian Kellenberger. "They allow us not only to get information that we couldn't reach before, but faster. I sometimes hear another deputy without a laptop request driver's license or registration information from the dispatcher and, just for fun, I'll punch the request in on my unit. I always have it several minutes before the dispatcher."

Still, the new system is more than just an amusement. Kellenberger said it improves the department at the most essential level.

"It makes our job easier and gets us back on the road," he said, "protecting the citizens faster than ever before."

Raymond Dussault is also Justice and Technology Editor and a research director for the Law Enforcement Technology Acquisition Project. Email