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What Emergency Managers Learned from Deadly Hurricane Ian

FEMA provided millions in relief for emergency rent, home repairs, hotel stays and other disaster-caused expenses, said Alberto Pillot, a spokesperson for the federal disaster-relief agency.

Chief Administrator for the Office of Emergency Management, Alan Harris talks during a press conference about Seminole County’s preparation for Tropical Storm Nicole from the Emergency Operations Center in Seminole County, Fla., Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022.
(Willie J. Allen Jr./Orlando Sentinel)
(TNS) - Powerful Hurricane Ian, the costliest storm in Florida history and one of the deadliest, wreaked havoc in Central Florida.

The storm should serve as a reminder to stay prepared for anything, Orange County Emergency Manager Lauraleigh Avery said of Ian, which caused more problems in the region with rain than wind.

“Ian was definitely a different kind of system,” she said.

The late-September storm dropped 17 inches of rain in one day, causing families to flee thigh-high waters that barged into homes in Orlo Vista and many other neighborhoods.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency ( FEMA ) provided millions in relief for emergency rent, home repairs, hotel stays and other disaster-caused expenses, said Alberto Pillot, a spokesperson for the federal disaster-relief agency.

Almost 700 Orange County households checked into hotel rooms paid for by FEMA through the Transitional Sheltering Program.

“I think the best message that we can tell people is to be prepared,” Avery said. “Have that family plan; know where you’re going to go if the water rises.”

Ian killed 161 people, 150 in Florida, 11 in hard-hit Volusia County and three in Orange, according to data compiled by the Florida Medical Examiners Commission.

The state’s death toll was Florida’s highest for a hurricane since 1935.

Avery said some area deaths occurred after Ian had passed.

Some people tried to clean up hurricane debris left on their roofs or in yards.

“Many times we run the EMS calls and somebody fell from high up in a tree and they’re laying on the ground by themselves,” Avery said. “They should never do that alone.”

“Two sets of eyes, two sets of hands are better than one,” she said.

In Orlando, city officials have begun annual efforts of meeting with community groups to discuss storm preparations.

Hurricane Ian, which struck Central Florida as a tropical storm, caused numerous city lakes to spill over into neighborhoods and damaged homes, but Knight said the historic rainfall, in addition to an already high water table, created perfect conditions for such a disaster.

“The biggest thing… I think residents need to know is sometimes these slow-moving tropical storms can do more damage,” said Corey Knight, Orlando’s public works director. “If it’s a tropical storm, don’t just blow it off.”

City officials encourage residents to bag leaves, grass and yard clippings when doing yard work, and to avoid blowing them out into the street. Sticks, logs and larger yard debris should be bundled, Knight said.

The loose waste can get into storm drains and clog them — a potential problem in a hurricane. Also, the material can wash through the stormwater system into lakes, and cause problems there, too.

A new piece of advice this year — in addition to building out a hurricane kit and plan early — is for residents to keep gas tanks above half-full this summer, Deputy Emergency Manager April Taylor said.

“Don’t run your gas tanks all the way to E,” she said. “In the summertime and hurricane season, when you get down to half a tank, just go ahead and refill.”

Seminole County emergency management officials said this hurricane season they will emphasize what residents can expect during and in the days after a storm.

“We’re going to message slightly differently,” said Alan Harris, director of Seminole’s Office of Emergency Management. “We’re going to address the risk of a storm, instead of just the category.”

Based on lessons they learned from last year’s storms, Seminole officials recently purchased additional special needs equipment and power generators, improved stormwater systems around Mullet Lake Park in Geneva, and upgraded the county’s logistics tracking system.

“We have done a bit to enhance our response this year based on lessons learned from last year,” Harris said.

Seminole County does not have large facilities to house residents seeking overnight refuge from a storm. Because civic centers in Sanford and Lake Mary, for example, have glass exteriors, those facilities cannot be used as shelters.

Schools cannot be reopened while being used as a shelter so Seminole officials have already started working with churches and other faith-based organizations to share facilities for use as emergency shelters.

Less than a month after Ian while many were still in recovery mode, on Nov. 10, Hurricane Nicole made landfall near Vero Beach, decimating the shoreline along Florida’s east coast.

After Ian’s historic rainfall and Nicole’s treacherous storm surge last year, Volusia County officials are encouraging residents to consider flood insurance, even for homes not in flood zones and not required to have it, said emergency management director Jim Judge.

The county participates in FEMA’s Community Rating System, a voluntary program for floodplain management, so residents in unincorporated Volusia can receive 25% discounts on flood insurance. Most homeowner’s insurance policies don’t cover flood damage.

Judge said after purchase, it takes about 30 days for the insurance to go into effect, so homeowners need to make the decision before a storm is closing in.

“Many people who didn’t have it, or didn’t think they needed it, were flooded,” he said.

In Osceola County, Emergency Management Director Bill Litton said staff from his office in March traveled to Maryland, where they trained with FEMA officials for active emergency weather threats and family reunification center plans.

Along with more training, Litton said the county increased the number of weather stations to 11, allowing for more data on lightning and wind speed.

Litton told the Orlando Sentinel he learned partnerships are the most valuable resources during a hurricane, especially after Ian.

“We had a great partnership with the South Florida Water Management District, watching basically lake levels and water flow but also we have the Corps of Engineers in the year immediately following this partnership has paid dividends for us in response and also the recovery side,” Litton said.

Litton said during those few days after the storm he and his team were concerned at the amount of water flowing from Orange County through Osceola and into Lake Okeechobee.

Another aspect Litton said his office will be looking at closer this upcoming hurricane season is lake levels and not just the river gauges, especially after the storm passes.

“We’re actually looking at East Lake and Lake Toho after the event knowing the waters could rise,” Litton said.

During Hurricane Ian, many residents in low-lying areas, including those that were not in officially listed flood zones, had to be evacuated. Litton said his office will encourage residents living in low-lying areas to prepare before a storm comes.

“If you know you’re in … a well-known, low-lying area or flood-prone area, go ahead and make those actions now and don’t wait till the waters are, you know, a foot or two feet deep,” Litton said.

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