Prepping for the big one

MANATEE — Using the premise that Manatee County just experienced a direct hit from Category 4 hurricane, more than 100 people from various public agencies and private service organizations participated Thursday in an exercise to develop a long-term recovery plan.

“It’s important to have these drills,” said Laurie Feagans, chief of Manatee County Emergency Management, which organized the program at the especially designed county Emergency Operation Center in Oneco.

“This is an opportunity to expand on our long-term planning,” Feagans said, “and learn what we have to look at how do you rebuild.”

The need for this exercise was realized after a contingency of elected officials, government employees, and community leaders from throughout the county attended a weeklong emergency response course at the FEMA center in Emmitsburg, Md., in January.

The elected officials of most of the government entities in the county, some of their department chiefs and staff, law enforcement and fire department officials, members of the U.S. Coast Guard, some state agency officials, along with several people from public service organizations, such as the American Red Cross, Salvation Army and United Way, were assigned to specific teams, called Emergency Support Functions or ESF.

Having drilled previously on evacuation and immediate response to a disaster, Thursday’s exercise began on the seventh day after the storm struck, and asked the participants what their team needed to do to get the county back to normal.

The all-day exercise presented a scenario of the fictitious Hurricane Edward with sustained winds of 160 mph pushing a storm surge of 15 feet over Longboat Key and Anna Maria Island.

As the hurricane roared ashore, the force of the 145 mph winds and the storm surge wiped out most of the barrier islands, even creating breaches to the Sarasota Bay and leaving very few structures and roads in tact.

The devastation was compared to the real destruction of Hurricane Charley that struck Charlotte County and Hurricane Katrina that smacked New Orleans.

Many of the participants gasped when pictures of washed-out bridges, piles of debris stacked along barely recognized roadways, and upended houses and mobile homes were projected on the huge screen in the operations center to demonstrate what Manatee would look like after a Category 4 storm.

“These are real,” said John Osborne, director of the county planning department and one of the program facilitators. “This is what Gulf Coast community looked like after Katrina.”

During the exercise, each ESF — for example, transportation, health, animal issues — was prompted to discuss some of the problems that would arise when evacuees began to return to their homes or businesses in an attempt to reopen.

The transportation team was asked to talk about how people would get to the island if both bridges were out, while the health group had to discuss what plan they would have to recover bodies.

Osborne prodded the participants to come up with answers on what to do a month after the initial impact of Hurricane Edward.

“There is still a lot of damage and a lot of people displaced,” he said, painting a picture of destruction unseen in the county for generations. “What happens in August? Schools are ready to open.

“How are we going to build back Manatee County?”

The answer to these and hundreds of other questions developed during the exercise will be incorporated in the Post Disaster Redevelopment Plan.

This was Anna Maria City Commissioner Dale Woodland’s first disaster exercise and he said he was impressed with how much there was to learn.

“I’ve read our city’s Disaster Preparedness Plan,” Woodland said as he sat with many of the other elected officials around the policy-makers’ table, “but here I see how all agencies participate and how they coordinate the communication between them.”

Longboat Key Town Manager Bruce Denis also said the drills are critical.

“You can have a plan,” Denis said, “but until it’s tested you don’t know how good it is.”

The fact that more then 100 people took time to attend this exercise, some who were even on vacation, indicated to County Administrator Ed Hunzeker the dedication of those who are responsible for getting the county back to normal after a disaster.

“They’re determining what the questions need to be and taking the time to develop the answers before the event occurs,” Hunzeker said.