‘Hope is not a strategy’: Former FEMA administrator details first insights to Sarasota’s Irma response

Hurricane Irma response review will begin with 'what happened?' says former FEMA administrator

Former FEMA administrator Craig Fugate toured the Sarasota County Emergency Operations Center Thursday ahead of his review of the county's response to Hurricane Irma.
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Former FEMA administrator Craig Fugate toured the Sarasota County Emergency Operations Center Thursday ahead of his review of the county's response to Hurricane Irma.

“Hope is not a strategy.”

With just 16 weeks until the next hurricane season, the Obama administration’s FEMA administrator Craig Fugate gave his initial insights on how Sarasota County fared in its response to Hurricane Irma last September.

It takes months of planning, preparation and coordination, not hope, he said.

In October, Sarasota County announced an after-action review team consisting of Fugate, as well as emergency managers from Flagler County, Seminole County and Orlando to review how it responded to Hurricane Irma. Each peer reviewer, all lauding Sarasota’s reaction to the storm, took on different focuses of the response: communications, shelters, power, debris and the county government’s preparedness to carry out response, even at last minute’s notice.

“Your building codes and land use will be the only real tools you have to build resiliency before the storm hits,” said Fugate, also a former emergency management director for the state of Florida. “Once you’re under the gun, the only outcome you’re going to change is lifesaving.”

The most dangerous part about a hurricane isn’t wind, but rather rain and storm surge, which Fugate said are responsible for about two-thirds of deaths related to hurricanes and tropical storms.

“The more people you get to evacuate, the better chance you have to keep loss of life to absolute minimum,” he said.

But evacuation doesn’t necessarily mean taking to the interstate and clogging up the roads. Going tens of miles is preferable to traveling hundreds of miles, and to implement that is making sure there are more Enhanced Hurricane Protection Area shelters that are pet-friendly and accessible to all. Newer homes that aren’t in evacuation zones are more likely the better choice than to skip town.

8,381 Shelter spaces Manatee County lacks in 2018

21,286 Shelter spaces Sarasota County lacks in 2018

A recent state report said that much of Southwest Florida lacks adequate shelter space if a Category 5 hurricane were to hit. Manatee County lacks 8,381 general population shelter spaces in 2018, while Sarasota County lacks 21,286. It won’t be solved this year, he added.

Fugate suggested that all shelters be opened at once instead of in waves.

“It is too easy to think, ‘Well, if the storm’s not that bad, would we use this shelter?’ You don’t have that option,” he said.

Much of the shelter staffing needs will be pushed to the county, a responsibility that used to be led by the American Red Cross, said Flagler County emergency manager Jonathan Lord. He suggested that the county coordinate who would staff which shelter and to make sure they become familiar with the layout and offer last-minute training if need be.

If officials called for mandatory evacuation in Zone B, would you know what that means?

Fugate offered a suggestion that the county instead communicate in layman’s terms with geographic landmarks to facilitate in getting the message across. In that same regard, Seminole County emergency manager Alan Harris said sharing the same information across all county government social media pages — even if they might not be directly related to emergency management, like an animal shelter or parks department Facebook page — so that the message will have the widest impact.

“People gravitate toward what they want to see,” Harris said.

After Irma hit, more than 218,000 residences in Sarasota County knew the trials and tribulations of losing power in the middle of September.

“All they care about is getting power back to their home,” said city of Orlando emergency manager Manuel Soto.

Restoring power is only half of it, as inspecting power poles, maintaining vegetation and setting up contracts for emergency generators ahead of time could make cleaning up the aftermath smoother. Having utility workers travel with public safety officials when they first to survey the damage after the storm to identify whether or not a downed line is safe to move could also save a life.

“It’s challenging to survive the storm,” Soto said. “But then it’s a major impact if we lose somebody after the storm due to (an) incident of not being in the right place or did not know that that line was energized or not.”

The total cost of the review was $46,000, part of which was for services from Ocala-based Emergency Response Educators and Consultants Inc. that was funded by a state emergency management grant to the county, said Sarasota County spokesman Jason Bartolone. Fugate’s fee was $20,000, paid for by the Gulf Coast Community Foundation and Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation, and the three other emergency managers offered their knowledge and advice for free.

A group of more than 60 representatives from the county, municipalities, government entities and non-profits broke out into sessions to add more input into the draft, including nursing home generators, self-reliance and improving communication between counties. The final report will be delivered to the Sarasota County board of county commissioners on March 14.

“You did not get hit by a major hurricane,” Fugate said. “You got ready for a major hurricane.”

Hannah Morse: 941-745-7055, @mannahhorse