Hillsborough County, Fla, dodged a bullet when Hurricane Irma sidestepped it, but the after-action reports led to an audit and an overhaul of the emergency management system, including hiring a new emergency manager.
When Hurricane Irma threatened Hillsborough County, Fla., in 2017, emergency management staff into overdrive to prepare for the eventual Category 5 storm.
Luckily for Hillsborough, the brunt of the storm missed the county. But the feeling was that had it hit, the preparation would have been considered inadequate. “Everybody worked really hard during Irma, but when we got to the big day, they were all burned out,” County Administrator Mike Merrill told the Tampa Bay Times. “We didn’t have that strong base of planning and programs that could play out.”
An independent audit after the fact showed that, among other things, the county had not hardened its four field operations centers where disaster assessment teams strategize about some of the logistical aspects of response and recovery like damage assessment and situational awareness. It was decided a complete overhaul of the Emergency Management Division would be necessary.
As part of the overhaul, the county replaced the retired emergency manager with Tim Dudley, who was formerly Pinellas County senior emergency management coordinator.
“We want to make sure we’re being a resilient community, being able to bounce back as soon as possible to make sure our citizens are well taken care of,” Dudley said. “Some of the areas we’re focused on are working with the GIS folks and developing improved damage assessment applications.”
The county has deployed Esri ArcGIS platforms Survey123 and Collector to improve damage assessment and WebEOC to improve communications with its 18 “support functions” seated in the EOC. The county also overhauled its logistics plans, to be able to accommodate all the resources that could pour in during and after a disaster.
It’s also developed a new training plan, adopting a three-year plan based on the after-action report from Irma. “We just completed a full-scale exercise, working with the many disciplines here in the EOC on how we could better coordinate to gather damage assessment and make sure we have efficiency in the supply chain,” Dudley said.
The county hardened those field operations centers and improved its special needs shelters. “We’ve done that by taking a look at how we deployed generators and are making sure we have the appropriate connections in place in some and adding permanent generators in others,” Dudley said. “We’ve installed the appropriate equipment to enable us to drop in a generator at a moment’s notice and make those critical hookups to have that extended power.”
The county also is offering residents the Hurricane Evacuation Assessment Toolset (HEAT), another Esri product. Residents can plug in their addresses and learn what evacuation zone they’re in. “When we give that message for evacuation, citizens need to know what hazard zones they’re in and heed the warning,” Dudley said.
“We want to continue to push the message about being able to use that tool and also new flood zone maps to help them distinguish the difference between evacuation zones and flood zones.”
The county also replaced its previous mass notification system with an Everbridge system.
“It doesn’t stop, we continue to plan and prepare,” Dudley said. “We want to stay ready and be on point and make sure we have everything we need, all the tools available to take care of our citizens in the best manner possible.”