The Palm Beach County Commission heard an update Tuesday, April 30 on disaster preparedness prior to the 2019 hurricane season, which begins June 1.
Deputy County Administrator Jon Van Arnam said the presentation would highlight accomplishments of the county, addressing disaster preparedness since hurricanes Matthew, Irma and Michael, as well as an overview of preparedness strategies for the upcoming season.
Public Safety Director Stephanie Sejnoha said the county’s Division of Emergency Management depends on teamwork for its success.
“Our vision is to become a world-class emergency management agency, keeping our community safe and resilient by working together with our partners and the public as a team,” Sejnoha said. “We rely on all county departments, as well as numerous state, federal and nonprofit volunteer agencies, to help us prepare, respond and recover from major disasters.”
Sejnoha said the Division of Emergency Management responds to all types of disasters, including technological and human-caused hazards, by planning with hundreds of stakeholder agencies, training responders and county employees and exercising a comprehensive emergency management plan.”
Director of Emergency Management Bill Johnson said the 2018 hurricane season was forecast to be average, but it turned out to be very active.
“Based on climate factors like the possibility of an El Niño emerging and the sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic, the 2019 season is forecast to be slightly below average,” Johnson said. “Because these forecasts are occasionally wrong, just as in 2018, we in emergency management don’t put much stock in them. We need to be prepared, and we need to be ready to respond every day of the year, regardless of the seasonal forecast and regardless of the hazard.”
Johnson said Hurricane Irma in 2017 impacted Palm Beach County with 67 mph sustained winds gusting to 91 mph, receiving 8 to 9 inches of rainfall.
“Over the past two years, the Division of Emergency Management and numerous partner agencies have worked hard to make improvements in various identified areas,” Johnson said, explaining that after Hurricane Irma, the division met with county staff and listened to suggestions.
“From their valuable input, we implemented changes to our preparedness efforts and response tactics,” Johnson said.
Changes include additional staff, enhanced training, additional tools and resources, enhanced security strategies, improved communications, and clearly defined job descriptions outlining employee roles and responsibilities.
Johnson pointed out that Florida Statutes require county employees to be prepared to respond to and recover from any hazard that affects the county.
“Our citizens rely on us for emergency shelters as well as other countywide disaster functions that are critical components of our emergency response plan,” Johnson said, explaining that county employees, with certain exceptions, are trained to participate in emergency response efforts, applying their special skill sets to disaster functions.
“While we have 4,300 employees with department-specific disaster responsibilities as part of their job, we currently have close to 1,600 employees who are on hold and trained to serve in our community in a variety of disaster essential roles,” Johnson said.
County staff are assigned to serve and supervise in county shelters with specifically assigned roles.
“Staff expressed a need to have identified leaders within the shelter and additional shelter training for various shelter roles and responsibilities,” Johnson said. “As such, a clear shelter table of organization was created to list the reporting roles within the shelters, and additionally county staff are provided vests designed to improve staff identification within the shelter, and finally hundreds of radios were ordered to improve communications within and between the shelters and the Emergency Operations Center.”
Through the support of municipalities, the healthcare district and local vendors, the county is providing enhanced medical support in the shelters, such as paramedics, nurses and nursing assistants, and enhanced technology in the Emergency Operations Center.
Information has been improved, giving residents clear guidance on what they need to bring to an emergency shelter, and information campaigns have been improved to promote the AlertPBC notification program in order to alert more residents.
The county also works with healthcare agencies to create clear instructions on required preparedness strategies for staff and facilities.
Johnson added that the county has made technological improvements on all facets of its damage assessment program.
“All these improvements will assist our assessors in the field accurately report damage in a timely manner,” Johnson said.
Hurricane Michael, which devastated the Florida panhandle in 2018 with 155 mph winds, the strongest hurricane to make landfall in Florida since Hurricane Andrew in 1992, gave Palm Beach County the opportunity to gain insight on its emergency response plan when it deployed county staff to the panhandle to offer recovery support.
Many Palm Beach County employees were sent, as well as a Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office search team, to assist the Calhoun County Emergency Operations Center.
“Palm Beach County is blessed to have a large-scale cadre of personnel and resources to respond to disasters and emergencies,” Johnson said. “The small, rural counties in the panhandle are not as fortunate. The Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency has an office of one. When the Palm Beach County team arrived in Calhoun County, nearly two weeks after landfall, the EOC had just returned to commercial power. There was no operational computer network in the emergency operations center, their Wi-Fi was tenuous, they had no operable telephone system in the EOC and they remained under a boil-water order,” Johnson recalled.