Lox Groves Prepared As 2015 Storm Season Gets Underway

Loxahatchee Groves has way more trees than people, but its hardy residents are ready to take on any hurricane that dares cross the community’s path.

Loxahatchee Groves Water Control District Administrator Steve Yohe explained that a hurricane preparedness plan was adopted in 1999 that goes through what needs to be accomplished each storm season in order for the area to be prepared.

The plan, he said, provides purpose, authority and direction.

“There is an annual review by staff to identify our strengths and weaknesses, and make sure that we have all of the emergency supplies, such as our generators working correctly, and all the batteries, flashlights and other materials you might anticipate needing after a hurricane,” Yohe said.

In addition, the district stays in close contact with the Palm Beach County Emergency Operations Center, located at the southeast corner of Military Trail and Southern Blvd.

“We here, at our site at the district, are the local emergency operations center. We have ham radio operators,” Yohe said. “We made room and tied them into our tower so that they can communicate with other ham operators and the county’s emergency operations center.”

Yohe said that he is able to log in to the computer system and district employees will radio or call in with what is going on across the community. Reports from the 8,000 acres covered by the LGWCD are added into the computer system and head to the county EOC for its master database.

It is all a process designed to works like a well-oiled machine, in case of an emergency.

Assuming that its building doesn’t suffer major damage during a storm, Yohe said, what really keeps the LGWCD up and running is its giant generator.

“When it is anticipated that everyone else won’t have electricity, we will have electricity, and we’ll be able to have light, air conditioning and computers, and will be able to communicate with the EOC. One of our most important assets is being able to have that generator here at that site,” he said.

Before, during and after a storm, the LGWCD takes on a great deal of responsibility.

“We need to clear the canals and clear the roads as quickly as possible to provide access for drainage and emergency vehicles,” Yohe said. “We’re responsible for 30 miles of canals and 30 miles of roads.”

Meanwhile, the Loxahatchee Groves Community Emergency Response Team, or CERT, communicates with the LGWCD and provides additional updates on what is going on in the Groves.

Pat Johnson, a founding member of the Loxahatchee Groves CERT, has been involved since 2007. “We decided early on for us to be able to communicate with each other because of the distances between areas, we’d need to do ham radio,” Johnson said.

Rich Handwerg, Johnson said, was already using ham radios at the time and got Johnson and her husband Ken involved.

Now there are several operators communicating with the LGWCD, the EOC and its own team members. “When we send out a team for search and rescue,” she said, “a ham goes out with each team.”

There are currently 50 ham operators on the roster, with usually 25 to 30 attending the monthly meetings.

“We do a drill every month so we’re ready,” she said. “The first Thursday of every month, we meet at the Palms West Presbyterian Church. In June, we did a triage exercise with a nurse practitioner. In July, we will be setting up a base station. We’re always drilling on something.”

Those drills help keep the CERT and its operators on their toes, and works to help build up a wider team for when an emergency strikes. “If team members come after a storm, they are checking certain regions of Loxahatchee Groves and they bring in that information for who got the hardest hit and where to send help,” Johnson said. “We have to be able to communicate with search teams to know they’re OK.”

So far, the Loxahatchee Groves CERT hasn’t had a major test of the extensive training its residents and leaders work so hard for. They’ve been lucky. This year, a slow season is also predicted, with few storms anticipated.

“We know we’re prepared to help. The role of CERT is to help our community until the first responders can get there. We plan to work closely with the LGWCD. Both will be assessing roads. We can tell each other where it is safe to go and if there are any power lines down,” Johnson said.

To learn more about the Loxahatchee Groves CERT, visit www.loxahatcheegrovesfl.gov and click on “Emergency Preparedness.” There is also emergency preparedness information on the LGWCD web site at www.lgwcd.org.