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We are on our own this hurricane season

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By Lou Elliott Jones

“We’re Americans. Our citizens can do more.”

That is the assessment of Mike West, information technology officer for the Levy County Sheriff’s Office, after participating in a hurricane exercise on May 28 at Levy County Office of Emergency Management.

It’s the message coming out of a tabletop hurricane exercise hosted by Levy Emergency Management Director Mark Johnson in conjunction with a statewide hurricane exercise. The participants included federal, state city and county public officials, and private and non-profit agencies. The exercise had two main parts: the response to the pending arrival of the hurricane and the recovery from the emergency it creates.

Thursday, May 28, 5 a.m.

Hurricane Suiter, an exercise modeled after a 1926 hurricane, is bearing down on Florida. It will eventually come ashore as a category 4 in South Florida on Saturday night, exiting at Charlotte Harbor as a category 2, grow as it skims across the Gulf to take on Pensacola as category 3.

Caught between two disasters is Levy County. By 11 a.m. Highways 19, 41 and 27A , as 500,000 people start moving out of South Florida. Some will be caught, along with Levy’s rural residents, in the northeast side of the storm, battling winds, rains and rising water from the counterclockwise motion of the swirling Suiter.

This is the scenario you have to deal with. What do you do?

Saturday, Hurricane watch issued for Levy County.

In the bunker, public and public service officials from throughout Levy County pondered their next move at every stage of Suiter’s 13 mph march across Florida.

By midday, residents heeding the advice of officials on media outlets have stocked up on water, food, and fuel. Fuel is especially troublesome because distributors will no longer deliver.

Danny Wallace of Williston Fire Department says the emergency services group has pulled back into stations in Williston, Chiefland and Bronson. “We’re working with Nature Coast Transit to get those folks who do not have transportation,” he said.

By night, heavy rain is falling and winds rise to tropical storm speed. The fire departments, police departments, Sheriff’s Office and Emergency Medical Services have parked their vehicles. Ambulances and sheriff’s cars are of little help if a branch or an unsecured garbage can blows through the windshield or a tree falls across a road.

The calls pleading for help from folks who didn’t evacuate, were unprepared, or are in a damaged building start coming in but eventually taper off as the storm takes out telephone lines and cell towers.

Inside school shelters, ham radio operators wait for the storm to pass and prepare to set up their outside antennas after the storm passes.

Sunday. The storm moves into the Gulf of Mexico.

But in Levy County, the storm continues to batter residents.

At Cedar Key and many other places throughout the county water is still rising as the Suiter pushes in storm surge in excess of 9 feet. Rain continues to fall.

Electrical power is out — everywhere. People stranded by the fuel shortage are packed in shelters and hotels.

Monday. Winds finally go below 40 mph but not before one last burst of damage.

“This is when we go to mutual aid agreements,” said Mark Johnson, director of emergency management for Levy.

Exercise facilitator Lee Newsome has grim news for the folks in the bunker. “Everything I said here sounded really quick, but everybody’s been up for three days preparing,” Fatigue, he says, is starting.

“You are going to run into the problem of stress because you are trying to help people while also trying to help your families. You have a lot going on in the first few days.”

The roof comes off the dispatch office at the sheriff’s office and workers scramble to cut off power to the equipment and seek shelter in the undamaged nearby jail. Calls are diverted to Alachua County’s Communications Center under a mutual aid agreement.

In the jail, dispatchers, inmates, deputies and sexual offenders who have nowhere else to seek shelter are crowded together.

OK, the storm’s over. Do you have a plan? What does each city and official do?

Seven people in Levy County have died. Another 180 were injured and need treatment. Not everyone owns a generator. Wells either are not working or may have been contaminated by flooding and standing water.

Businesses are broken into for supplies.

The folks in the emergency bunker huddle in their groups: law enforcement, public information, emergency services, human services and health, government, infrastructure.

The sheriff’s office and ambulances hit the roads, along with damage assessment teams from the property appraiser’s office.

Also emerging are the media hounds, eager for every tidbit they can feed to the outside world.

Volunteers and relief supplies come from all over and they are not organized.

There’s debris everywhere. Power lines and trees cross the highways and county roads like a dropped box of matches. It could be weeks before power is restored because more damage has been done in South Florida and the Panhandle, attracting more aid and bodies.

Tires are damaged by road debris. Generators start to be hooked up — some incorrectly. One in a garage causes a problem in the attached home.

Tuesday. Where are the truckloads of food, water and ice?

The water will come, but FEMA will no longer haul ice to devastated areas. It is too costly and at times does not reach its destination. The only people who can get ice are those who need it to keep their medicine cool, like insulin-dependent diabetics.

Food will also come. MREs that have been stored nearby will be distributed.

At Chiefland City Hall, they fire up the electrical generator, purchased with grant money, that will supply power for 72 hours until FEMA can get its vehicles into the area and open for business at Strickland Park. The scramble for the $21,000 started as hurricane season began.

Cedar Key is hooking up its $45,000 generator at the community center that will be a headquarters for residents.

All through the county National Guard troops, requested by Gov. Charlie Crist and the Levy County Board of Commissioners move to secure area for residents.

At Cedar Key, motorists are greeted by law enforcement and the National Guard checking for new zoned passes. Residents who do not have the passes are being turned away. Those who have them are let in with the warning to stay in their zone. Wander out and you will be out of Cedar Key.

At the desk for the County Road Department, Administrative Superintendent Bruce Greenlee is working his way through the pages in a ring binder he prepared over a year ago. He is talking to the county’s contractors for debris hauling. The contracts have been in place for months. Greenlee’s binder outlines the step by step plan to clear roads and bridges, haul off trees and parts of homes and offices that have blown about, and get the county moving again.

He also has crews dispatched to check the conditions of roads and bridges, reporting back on which ones are flooded or washed out. Greenlee has 30 days of fuel stored for his trucks and equipment. He’s on the phone to Florida Department of Transportation officials telling them what the county needs.

What do you do?

Ann Rowe McMullen, who works in public relations in Tallahasse, is moonlighting as a trainer for Emergency Response Exercise Consultants, said the purpose of the exercise is to help folks think about the situation and their response to it.

“How can they improve on an existing situation? What other new ideas are out there? Help them with new ways of thinking,” she said.

She said another advantage for Levy is that the officials get “face time” and get acquainted. “They’re developing better coordination.”

“They get to see what’s working and what might be improved.”

Law enforcement and public officials agree a curfew will be needed and they will be asking the county commission and city commissions throughout Levy to pass emergency curfew ordinances that will require people to stay off the streets between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Commissioner Lilly Rooks will carry a letter from Johnson to the commission seeking the countywide ordinance.

The big message of the exercise.

Wallace says, “We’re a county that just doesn’t have the resources and that’s what it’s all about.” Fire departments are mostly volunteer.

West said, “We’re not based on a mass calualty model. A lot is going to be based on public education.”

That’s when he sums up the feeling most in the bunker know will have to be done.

“We’re Americans. Our citizens can do more.”

For more information on how to prepare for the storm, check www.levydisaster.com.

In July, the Chiefland Citizen will be publishing a hurricane preparedness and recovery section for our readers.