Manatee officials hold emergency drill, urge preparedness, as hurricane season approaches

skennedy@bradenton.comMay 23, 2014 

MANATEE -- More than 200 people representing a bevy of local agencies considered disaster scenarios Thursday during a mock hurricane emergency drill.

The drill simulated what might happen should fictitious "Hurricane Jones" hit south of Manatee County.

The simulated Category 3 hurricane and an aftermath of tornadoes and heavy flooding provided fodder for Manatee County's emergency management team to evaluate whether it is adequately prepared for such a disaster.

"It brings about a little bet

ter comfort level," said Chief Don Hermey of Manatee County Emergency Management Division, which organized the exercise at the county Emergency Operation Center, 2101 47th Terrace E.

The goal was to "encourage preparedness among everyone" as the start of the Atlantic hurricane season arrives June 1 and continues through Nov. 30.

Sarasota County also staged a practice session Thursday during a week that state officials had designated for drills in many areas across Florida.

The emergency management team considered how to reach the public via Twitter and Facebook, and how best to provide up-to-date information on the county website, mymanatee.org, Hermey said.

A special team would be assigned to "rumor control" should a hurricane hit in order to halt Internet misinformation, he said.

Emergency responders also can look forward to a big-ticket improvement since construction of a state-of-the-art regional communications network could start next year, according to Wilfredo Miranda, Manatee County radio communications manager.

The network, which will replace radio equipment dating to the 1980s, is to be designed, built and operated in conjunction with Sarasota County, with each county contributing half of the $30 million to $35 million cost, he said.

It will allow firefighters, emergency medical personnel, Manatee County, Sarasota County and state officials all to communicate via radio, a luxury they do not presently enjoy.

"Right now, we're using smoke signals," joked Miranda.

Maybe the network will be up and ready before anything serious happens: The last nine years have been relatively quiet in terms of hurricane activity.

In 1991, a tropical depression named Ana made landfall near Holmes Beach, as did Tropical Storm Barry in 2007, according to Nicole Carlisle, a meteorologist for the Ruskin office of the National Weather Service.

A number of storms have churned past in the Gulf of Mexico but did not come ashore, she said, recalling Tropical Storm Debby, which inflicted a beating on miles of Manatee's famous beaches in 2012.

Officials hope resident will not become complacent after years without landfall from a serious hurricane.

Experts aboard a hurricane hunter aircraft operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will be in Tampa on Friday to raise awareness about storm threats, according to a press release from NOAA public affairs officer Dennis Feltgen.

The federal agency has done the "awareness tour," which includes four other cities, for more than 30 years, it said.

"The U.S. was spared from a hurricane last year, but that does not mean we will be as fortunate during the 2014 season," said Rick Knabb, director of agency's National Hurricane Center. "Prepare for a hurricane now before one threatens your area, and find out if you are in a hurricane evacuation zone."

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.

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