What Hurricane Officials Learned from the Historic Season of 2004

Emergency managers worry about the many people who weren’t in Florida for those four storms and have enjoyed more than eight years without any hurricane strikes on the state.

by Eliot Kleinberg, McClatchy News / May 19, 2014
Urban Search and Rescue Teams working in debris-filled neighborhoods in Pensacola, Fla., in September 2004. Photo courtesy of FEMA/Jocelyn Augustino

A decade after Florida’s historic 2004 hurricane season, emergency managers say their knowledge and tools have improved. But they’re scared silly about short memories and population turnover — and the law of averages.

Four storms — Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne — struck Florida in one year, with two striking Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast, which had escaped hurricanes for decades.

Can we get another season like that? Odds are low. Except that odds were low that Frances and Jeanne would strike at nearly the same spot and exactly three weeks apart.

And despite that 2004 season, and despite Wilma in 2005, and despite the catastrophic Andrew in 1992, Florida actually “has been extremely lucky in the last three or four decades,” noted hurricane soothsayer William Gray at last week’s Florida Governor’s Hurricane Conference in Orlando.

Even with all those landfalls, Gray said, with the population of Florida exploding like it has, 19 million people, you’re going to see more hurricane damage than you’ve seen, in the coming decades.

And managers worry about the many people who weren’t in Florida for those four storms and have enjoyed more than eight years without any hurricane strikes on the state.

On Friday, emergency managers who were in areas either hit or at least threatened by the four 2004 storms debated: “Are we better off now than we were then?”

Highlights of what they’ve learned:

The danger of focusing just on the “skinny black line.” And learned storms don’t fall apart when they hit the coast.

Charley, which appeared on a beeline for vulnerable and heavily populated Tampa Bay, slid a little to the right and came ashore, slamming Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda, doing tremendous damage inland. As would Frances and Jeanne.

“We were looking at the storm hitting Tampa Bay,” Polk County emergency manager Pete McNally said, “and, ‘Gee, what can we do to help those poor people?’ A few hours later we’re in the cross-hairs. We really had to scramble. Even though we were in the ‘cone’ the entire time. We have learned our lesson. … If you’re in the cone, you’re in the cone.”

Counties are building better and more reinforced Emergency Operations Centers and taking emergency management seriously.

“In the 1970s, most counties had an emergency manager. And he was a retired colonel. And he had a relative on the county commission,” Indian River County Emergency Manager John King said.

After the 2004 storms, then-Gov. Jeb Bush, and the state’s emergency manager, Craig Fugate — now director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency — found money and grants to upgrade or replace aging emergency management centers statewide and buy generators to keep them operating.

“I think the state of Florida’s in pretty good shape should we have another storm season like 2004,” said Fort Myers-area emergency manager J0hn Wilson.

But, Wilson said, a program of state competitive grants to help counties improve their response went away when the economy tanked.

“We’re in a favorable environment; perhaps it’s time for it to come back,” Wilson said.

When a storm hits or even threatens a place that hasn’t cleaned up from the last one, that’s bad.

During a Treasure Coast flyover following Jeanne, the National Hurricane Center’s then-director Max Mayfield and his colleagues had to strain to figure out what was new damage and what had been caused by Frances three weeks earlier.

In Indian River County, where 40 percent of the tax base is within a mile and a half of the coast, and the western parts are vulnerable citrus and cattle land, 86 percent of the households were without electricity after Frances. After Jeanne, three weeks later, the figure was 99 percent, emergency manager King said Friday; “I can tell you, that’s a bad day, folks,” he said.

In Charley, Charlotte County emergency manager Wayne Salladé was forced to leave his emergency operations center, in the same building as the sheriff’s headquarters, for the back-up center at the county jail. Colleagues made it there, but he couldn’t; he rode out Charley at the county’s municipal airport.

But when Frances and Jeanne aimed inland, Salladé began sweating again. He’d spend 36 hours and 12 hours, respectively, at his operations center.

And as Ivan had come north, Salladé was looking at another, perhaps worse, impact. He’d done only a first-level evacuation in Charley; now he might have to order out 40 percent of the population. In the end, Ivan passed by.

The state’s response network underwent a radical change after the 2004 season.

“Gov. (Jeb) Bush said, ‘We’re never again going to get caught with our pants down,’” Polk County’s Pete McNally recalled.

“It used to be very, very decentralized as to where that stuff (food, water, repair supplies) was coming from,” he said. The state established in 2007 a large distribution center not far from where the hurricane conference met in Orlando; it keeps supplies ready to transport to hurricane strike areas across the peninsula.

And it’s not just the state. Working with volunteers and the private sector, Charlotte County had the first centers for distribution of food and water operating with 22 hours of Charley’s landfall, Salladé said.

And Polk’s McNally said, the quickest way to recover is to “open your schools and get your businesses operating again.”

But, Indian River’s King said, “the expectation of our citizens to have a professional response is much more demanding now.”

©2014 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)

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