Emergency Officials: County Ready For Hurricane Season

The Palm Beach County Department of Emergency Management addressed a topic other than the pandemic at the Tuesday, May 18 meeting of the Palm Beach County Commission — the upcoming hurricane season.

The pre-hurricane season briefing was presented by Public Safety Director Stephanie Sejnoha and Division of Emergency Management Director Mary Blakeney.

“We are not just the hurricane people, as evidence by our response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We spend the entire year addressing our 12 core hazards,” Sejnoha explained. “It’s all about teamwork when it comes to the Division of Emergency Management. Our vision is to be a world-class emergency management agency, keeping our community safe and resilient by working together with our partners and the public as a team.”

The core hazards mentioned by Sejnoha are split into three categories: natural, technological and human-caused hazards. Natural hazards include severe weather, floods, agricultural pests and diseases, fire and communicable diseases. Technological hazards involve transportation, hazardous materials, nuclear power plant and dike failures. Human-caused hazards include domestic security, mass migration and workplace or school violence.

“Although it was forecast to be an above average year, 2020 ended up being a busy, record season for all of us with 30 named storms,” Sejnoha said, adding that the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) looked at data over the last 30 years and recalculated a new, higher season average. “Even with this new increased average, 2021 is expected to be a higher-than-average year.”

Citizens rely on Palm Beach County for shelters during times of emergency, and the county currently has 67 shelter supervisors and 595 shelter support staff in place. The training and planning for this staff is outlined in the Employee Disaster Response Program (EDRP).

“In fact, as a result of COVID-19, the EDRP was critical in identifying additional staff to support various response efforts during the crisis, such as testing and vaccination sites,” Sejnoha said.

Over the past year, the Department of Emergency Management conducted 17 trainings to prepare staff. “Additionally, we have conducted three exercises, including a community emergency response team, a domestic security and family assistance and survivor care center. As of now, we are anticipating one additional exercise focusing on a radiological event,” she said.

Blakeney continued the presentation, focusing on scenarios that involve hurricanes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“COVID-19 has placed an unprecedented strain on disaster management on our health, first responders and other systems over the past year. A hurricane will continue to exacerbate that strain,” Blakeney said, emphasizing that the strategies put in place last season will continue this year. “We evaluated ways for ensuring physical distancing while not dramatically reducing our overall capacity.”

All shelters will continue to have materials such as hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies available. Opening shelters may not always happen though.

“We may have to balance the evacuation risk against the risk of increasing disease transmission. Since stormwater and surge is the number one killer in hurricanes, those who reside in an evacuation zone, if told to evacuate, must evacuate,” Blakeney said.

She then addressed the commissioners directly and clearly on how they can help during this hurricane season. “We look to you to help get accurate messaging out to your constituents. Providing accurate, up-to-date information to our residents is one of our top priorities. We need everyone to be prepared personally and professionally,” Blakeney said. “Our message is very simple — make a plan. Individuals need to know if they should evacuate. If not, they should shutter up and stay in place. We encourage county residents to evacuate in county. Have a plan for pets and everyone who may have a special need. While we are hoping for a quiet 2021 hurricane season, we cannot let our guard down, and we need to be ready for anything at any time.”

Learn more about getting ready for hurricane season at https://discover.pbcgov.org/publicsafety.