Post-Irma, Manatee emergency workers practice first 'boots-on-the-ground' drill in a decade

The fictional town of Mosaic in northeast Manatee County was clobbered by a fake tornado early Tuesday. Power lines tangled in felled trees, which piled on top of roadways, cars or both.

For the first time in nearly a decade, Manatee County performed a "boots-on-the-ground" emergency response drill.

Normally, Manatee County first responders prepare for the upcoming hurricane season with a drill at their emergency operations center. Because of Hurricane Irma, this year would be different.

"Obviously with the season we just came out of, we recognized (the entire public safety department) needed to increase ... this agency's response," said Steve Litschauer, Manatee County emergency management officer.

A convoy of about 25 vehicles took the 45-minute journey from the Manatee County Public Works building on 26th Avenue East and sent lights and sirens down State Road 62 to Duette Fire and Rescue.

Nearly two miles down the road at Duette Preserve, the town of Mosaic was in ruins.

"As part of the first in-team process, what they do is they go into areas and they clear roadways based on priorities," said Bob Smith, director of Manatee County Public Safety. This means prioritizing access to hospitals and other important infrastructure.

Not only did the typical public safety officers participate, but representatives from Manatee County Public Works, All-Hazard Incident Management Team, Florida Power & Light and Peace River Electric Cooperative were also present. In all, nearly 75 people took part in the drill.

First responders huddle at the Duette Fire and Rescue District Tuesday for a tornado drill Tuesday. Hannah Morse hemorse@bradenton.com

This hands-on drill was also the first time it took place in Duette. Jim Leonard, Duette fire chief, said he was excited by the prospect.

"I think there are a lot of people who are not familiar with this part of the county," he said.

The 2017 hurricane season in Manatee County brought two tornadoes within a month of each other — Tropical Storm Emily sent a tornado dashing across northwest Bradenton last July and Samoset was hit with a tornado in late August.

But a little more than two years ago, a real tornado struck Duette. Steve Wilson, 58, was found dead under the debris of his mobile home. His wife, Kelli "Kade" Wilson later had a heart attack and died. The Wilsons' son and four grandchildren in the home survived.

"It's unfortunate that there were some memories that came up," Litschauer said of planning this drill.

But the location, out of the way of downtown traffic and large enough to accommodate a variety of agencies, was perfect to get everyone out in the field.

"A policeman does police work every day. A firefighter does fire work every day," Litschauer said. "But to come together to truly train on that, you can't sit in a classroom. You can't have this kind of thing going on."

Hannah Morse: 941-745-7055, @mannahhorse