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HURRICANE SEASON 2009: A local lesson in helping storm victims

MANATEE — The devastation: 670 dead, 3.8 million Floridians displaced and $160 billion in damage.

The need: for Manatee County to find food, water and shelter for hundreds of thousands of people displaced by a devastating hurricane in South Florida.

That was the scenario laid out during a drill Monday at the Manatee County Emergency Operations Center in which officials were tasked with coming up with a plan to cope with an influx of hurricane victims as a “host community.”

The drill began with an announcement that a massive hurricane had just missed Manatee. The county was free from serious damage, but South Florida wasn’t so lucky.

Hurricane victims by the thousands had clogged roadways and headed north in search of help.

Here is how Manatee emergency officials reacted:

Hurricane victims flooded the county, many down to fumes in their gas tanks. The 911 switchboard lit up, mostly from exasperated victims seeking food, water and shelter.

The increased call volume prompted Manatee 911 coordinator Ernie McFarland to set up a phone line dedicated to nonemergency calls for those whose lives were not in danger, but were unfamiliar with the area and had nowhere to go.

“We were seeing an significant increase in calls that overwhelmed us,” McFarland said. “But the backup was alleviated by pushing along the nonemergency calls.”

Meanwhile, recovery operations teams came up with a plan to shelter more than 25,000 displaced Floridians that couldn’t be held by the area’s hurricane shelters, which swelled to more than 90,000 people in the storm’s aftermath.

The operations teams put into action the construction of a tent city holding 25,000 people, and 450 lots holding two to four trailers apiece.

It would become a mini-city with assistance on-hand to get meals, water, utilities, entertainment for children and job-finding services should stays become extended.

Manatee law enforcement also increased the number of officers at local shelters from two to four and put a team of officers at the tent city. The health department also tested for disease, conducted food inspections and monitored sanitation.

After the drill, it was apparent Manatee residents would be making sacrifices should the area become a “host community.”

“The state has told us that it could be weeks before we see federal money if something like this happens,” said Manatee Public Safety Capt. Larry Leinhauser. “So we need to be prepared to take care of Florida.”

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