Cecilia Patella Hernando County Emergency Management Director addressed the County Commission on Sept. 19 to give them a briefing on the Emergency Operations Center/ Emergency Management efforts prior to, during and in the days following Hurricane Irma.
All commissioners expressed their gratitude and satisfaction with the collaborative efforts between county departments and across agencies, coordinated through Emergency Management.
Commissioner Nicholson stated, “In the thirty plus years I’ve lived in Hernando County, this is by far the best job I’ve ever seen done and the feedback I got was nothing but positive. Probably for the first time in five years I didn’t get one single email complaining. So congratulations you guys did an absolutely fantastic job and I want to thank you and all the staff and volunteers and everyone else that helped.”
Patella began by reminding commissioners that they are still in the middle of the disaster response, “Keep in mind the first part of this event has occurred. We are now still in response mode for the second part of this event… I anticipate having to come back at a later date and giving more details, ” she said.
Patella explained that all of the actions they took were based on the forecast in the coming days of the storm. Hernando County was forecasted to receive category 3 strength winds, 10 - 15 foot storm surge and 8-10 inches of widespread rainfall. The actual impacts were NWS verified category 1 hurricane wind speeds (74-95 mph), an estimated storm surge of 2-3 feet (at low tide) and 6.45 to 7.3 inches of rainfall countywide.
The Executive Policy Group met several times before and after the storm. They made the decisions to implement a mandatory evacuation order for coastal Hernando County due to the forecasted storm surge. They also implemented a voluntary evacuation order for residents along the Withlacoochee and executed a local state of emergency declaration and extended it twice through Sept. 25, 2017.
Patella stated that they anticipate the river coming to a crest in the next few days and remaining at the high for 5 days following.
In preparation for the storm, eight shelters opened including 6 schools, 1 at The Arc Nature Coast for developmentally disabled, 1 community shelter. She stated that a total of 5,267 residents were in shelters along with 736 animals of 8 different species including a hermit crab. Of the hermit crab she added, “Very easy to take care of by the way.”
“It was an amazing effort to shelter our animals in Hernando County,” said Patella. She explained that they had an extensive exercise about a month before the event to test out the pet sheltering operations at DS Parrott Middle School. They had identified some things that needed to be purchased and did so in advance of the hurricane. At the end of the event, there were three pet friendly shelters.
A total of 155 special needs and transportation disadvantaged residents were transported to the shelter prior to landfall. Transportation was provided by the school district as well as by EMS ambulances. Some residents who just needed a ride were also transported to shelters.
She described an active outreach to encourage evacuation in coastal and river communities with multiple agencies working together to notify residents of the danger.
Next steps include the continued response to flooding of the Withlacoochee River.
Impacted areas include Nobleton, Istachatta, an area near Masaryktown and in Ridge Manor where stations were setup to assist residents and distribute food and water.
As far as debris removal, she said that it will take several weeks and it is a “very methodical long term process.” She said that the companies need to make their way through the entire county since the storm had countywide impacts and it will take them some time to do so. After they finish the first pass, there will be a second pass she said. The first pass began Sept. 18, 2017.
Hernando County was declared for public assistance in order to help the government portion of the county recover. We were also declared for individual assistance, intended to help our residents recover. At this point residents are able to register for Federal Assistance through the FEMA 800 number (1 (800) 621-3362). She encouraged residents to contact the Emergency Operations Center if any assistance is needed and they can put together resources. “Any critical needs will be addressed immediately,” she said.
Chairman Wayne Dukes stated that if FEMA denies an application due to an error there is a repeal process.
Patella dispelled rumors that applications are being denied because we were not in the first wave of declared counties. “If they were denied the first time because we were not a declared county, they may have tried to register to early. I encourage them to try to go ahead and register again.”
Mosquito control in response to the storm will also be upcoming. “Obviously we can’t do anything along the river while it continues to flow. Mosquito control is on that process… it is on the radar of the emergency operations center,” she said.
Patella commended all the unknown individuals “in the backroom” helping them coordinate with shelters, transportation and information gathering like Ralph Lee with the Hernando County School District who helped tremendously with dispatch. She said that Mark Barry Director of The Arc Nature Coast particularly stepped up when he took in evacuees from the school shelters as they were closing. Barry managed the sheltering of the evacuees without assistance from the county. “An individual like that, took it on, did the work, not looking for any credit. He just supported the community,” she said.
She also recognized Sara Chase at Ridge Manor Community Center who managed the distribution center on her own for five days.
Commissioner Holcomb added that Hernando County Fire Rescue and law enforcement personnel had to be prepared to be on station for five days. They had to get their families prepared in advance so they could be out there serving the community for five days.
County Administrator Len Sossamon added that both hospitals sheltered their staff/associates and family members of staff. Oak Hill ended up sheltering 1138 peopled comprised of associates, families of associates, patients, patient families, visitors and 142 pets. Bayfront’s two campuses had over 400 associates, family members of associates not counting their patients. In one location they had 80 pets and in another they had 30 pets.
The county had contact from US Senator Rubio’s Office, Senator Bill Nelson’s Office and both offered assistance during the hurricane and afterwards. US Congressman Daniel Webster visited the EOC on Sept. 12. Senator Simpson and Representative Ingoglia also stopped by the EOC along with County Commissioners.
Scott Hechler said that he was proud to see that every county employee became a responder. “It was amazing to watch,” he said.
Kevin Carroll, Deputy Fire Chief commented, “People of Hernando County should be proud to know that regardless of what was going to come down on this county, that the folks in this county made sure that this county was very well prepared.”
“This was by far the most informed I feel the public has been and the most prepared in this county...” Carroll cited door to door efforts the use of social media and press conferences.
He added that communication dispatchers were tremendous along with Medfleet Ambulance for transporting the special needs individuals.