Feagans leaves big rain boots to fill as disaster chief

rdymond@bradenton.comFebruary 21, 2013 

MANATEE -- A Manatee County emergency worker who has earned praise in Tallahassee and nationwide over the course of her career is retiring.

Laurie Feagans' last day is Friday after 15 years as chief of Manatee County Emergency Management.

Feagans' husband, Gregg Feagans, has already retired from his position as disaster planner with the Manatee County Health Department following a long stint as Sarasota County emergency management director and 911 coordinator.

Don Hermey will take over from Laurie Feagans as emergency management chief in Manatee County.

"Laurie Feagans is a role model for our profession," Leo Lachat, Florida's chief of emergency response, said from Tallahasee this week.

He has worked with Feagans since 1995.

"She has made a real difference with Florida emergency management statewide and beyond our borders," Lachat added. "She is professional, 'can do', fair and reasonable,"

Feagans is a quick learner but, more than that, she knows how to build and lead a team, Lachat said.

"I thank her always for her courtesy with my staff over the years," Lachat said. "I witnessed it and heard about it many times. The way she treats people sets her apart."

After Hurricane Katrina hit Mississippi in 2005, Laurie Feagans deployed along with a disaster team of 12 and 23 Manatee County Sheriff's Office deputies to help. She became the incident commander in Hancock County, which had been devastated by the storm.

"Hancock County lost its courthouse, its emergency operations center, its fire and law enforcement, everything was compromised," Feagans said.

"What hit me was, 'If your government is compromised, where do you go and what do you do?' " Feagans added.

The lessons she learned there, specifically how a local government must have a back up plan for being totally wiped out, she brought back to Manatee.

"Manatee County has so many areas that are in a flood zone," Feagans said. "It took us four years of good hard work to get a firm plan so that all of our employees know where to rally to. I don't think many counties have completed that. That is the biggest thing I did that makes me feel good."

Some of the lessons she learned were horrible for her to see.

"One of the hardest things in Mississippi after Katrina were the abandoned pets and even horses," Feagans said. "Every day, we would see the bodies of dogs on the streets which had been struck by emergency vehicles. Now we have pet friendly shelters in Manatee. That was a huge lesson learned."

Many say Laurie Feagans' legacy will be how she has set up Manatee County as a model of emergency preparedness based on what she learned from Katrina.

"She has done a fabulous job with her plans and strategies to keep us safe," said Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston, who has worked closely with Feagans.

"Laurie makes it look so effortless," Poston added. "If you are with her, the sun is shining."

Feagans is the only emergency management director in the state of Florida who has twice received the state's Emergency Manager of the Year Award, which is voted by her peers.

"Hurricane Charlie (in 2004) coming up toward us," Feagans said when asked for her scariest moment in Manatee County. "That was probably the most intense moment for me personally that occurred during an activation. Before Charlie took that right hand turn and veered into Charlotte County it was coming right at Manatee."

After retirement, the only disaster Feagans hopes to confront is a melting popsicle.

"I have four grandchildren, two in Bradenton and two in Sarasota, and I have always been a working grandma," Feagans added. "I'm gonna get really active with the grandchildren, go to science fairs, be there for everything they do. Down the road, Gregg and I plan to travel. He and I have not left the state of Florida between June 1 and Nov. 30 in the last 23 years."

June 1 to Nov. 30, of course, is hurricane season.

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