County tweaks preparedness plans post-Irma
Principals, staff get extra training; shelter issues are addressed.
Palm Beach County took its new preparedness plan out for a drive last year in the midst of an approaching Category 5 hurricane.
It was a bumpy and, for some, a frustrating and frightening ride. But county residents who needed a place to escape the approaching fury of Hurricane Irma had shelter, even if some of those assigned to work there felt they were hastily drafted for that duty and poorly trained.
Now, a month before a new hurricane season begins, the county and the school district are putting the finishing touches on updates to that preparedness plan. Both principals and employees are getting additional training. For example, the county plans to provide vests and wristbands so shelter dwellers and staff can identify one another and, once the school year ends, a walk-through for county staff of the places where they’ll work during a storm.
County officials say they have learned from last year’s trial by Irma and believe they are better prepared to evacuate and shelter residents if another major storm approaches.
“Unfortunately, Irma came
much faster than anticipated,” County Administrator Verdenia Baker told commissioners during a recent meeting to discuss the county’s preparedness. “We learned some very valuable lessons.”
Bill Johnson, the county’s Emergency Management director, said the county last year took on more responsibilities staffing shelters, reducing reliance on the Red Cross.
“Irma was the first time the county undertook complete management of the shelters, which is no small undertaking,” he said in an interview with The Palm Beach Post. “One of the important lessons is it takes time to pull in thousands of folks and train them as shelter staff.”
Filling volunteer void
Sheltering county residents has long been a triple team effort by the county, the School District of Palm Beach County and the American Red Cross.
The county had relied upon the Red Cross for shelter staffing and management. That changed, however, when 2016’s Hurricane Matthew forced evacuations throughout South Florida.
The Red Cross struggled to find enough volunteers to staff the shelters, and county officials found themselves calling up employees at the last minute imploring them to “volunteer” to fill the void.
Baker changed course last year, telling the county’s roughly 6,000 employees that they were “essential” staff in the midst of an approaching hurricane and would be expected to assist in some way.
That didn’t change much for about 4,500 employees, whose job descriptions had always made clear that they would be required to work during a hurricane.
For many other employees, however, the change was an unwelcome surprise.
Some bristled at the notion that they were “volunteers,” when, in fact, they had been directed to work during a hurricane and faced possible discipline if they failed to do so.
Others complained that the county provided either no training or inadequate training. Some shelters, they said, were disorganized: Evacuees didn’t have a clear way of identifying staff, and staff did not have a clear way of identifying who had been checked into the shelter and who had not.
Some employees said they felt unable to assist evacuees who arrived at the shelters expecting that bedding and full meals would be provided.
Baker and other county executives solicited feedback from the employees, and plans were tweaked accordingly.
Pick your assignment
County employees were given an opportunity to say where they wanted to be assigned.
So far, Johnson said, about 400 employees have done so. The 1,100 other employees whose jobs wouldn’t otherwise require them to work during a hurricane are being assigned specific duties at specific locations, Johnson said.
Staff members will be furnished with vests to identify them when they work in shelters. Johnson said the county is looking into buying wristbands for evacuees so staffers know who has been checked into a specific shelter.
About 47,000 shelter spaces are available in the 15 schools that have been designated as shelters, Johnson said.
The county almost ran out of space in the two shelters set aside for special needs residents, and it did run out of space in the shelter that accepted pets. Baker and Johnson said the county is looking for additional facilities that can serve in those capacities.
It’s not been an easy search, Johnson said.
“Offers would come up, but when we’d walk through it, those buildings wouldn’t work out,” he said, adding that a building would have to be constructed to withstand hurricane-force winds and be able to operate on generator power. “Those types of buildings aren’t just laying around.”
Even without the additional shelters, Johnson said the county is prepared for the upcoming storm season.
School district officials say the same.
Each public-school shelter is managed by the school’s principal, with guidance from the county’s emergency operations staff.
Along with the principal, the school district staffs each shelter with two to three dozen employees, including police officers, cafeteria workers, janitors and facility experts.
That’s in addition to county employees and Red Cross volunteers.
“We’re going to run pretty much with the same model we had last year,” said school district police Maj. Braxton Davis, who oversees the district’s emergency management planning. “We have a good model. We just want to tweak it as you would any model.”
After last year’s dash to reorganize how shelters operate, the school district has worked to ensure this year that its principals had more robust training in the many facets of managing shelters.
“We were in the middle of transitioning out of the Red Cross and into the new model when the storm occurred, and it kind of caught us while we were still in the planning phase,” Davis said.
While the district felt most aspects of the shelters ran smoothly last year, the biggest challenge, he said, was “making sure we have enough staff on hand. That’s one of the most important things.”
In some cases, people whom they expected to assign to shelters had left town for various reasons.
“When you call somebody and they have extenuating circumstances, you just run into problems like that,” he said. “Sometimes you’ll have people sick. You’ll have somebody on vacation. Sometimes, if they don’t show up, then we have to plan at the last second to change the plan.”
He said the key to avoiding being short-handed is ensuring that the district has other people it can call to replace them.
Even in the best of circumstances, he said, operating a shelter is never easy.
Johnson said residents should not have outsized expectations at shelters, where each evacuee will be provided 20 square feet of space, snacks and water.
Items evacuees should bring include bedding such as a yoga mat, blankets or a small, inflatable mattress; medicine; two changes of clothing; baby food and formula if needed;, a battery-operated cellphone charger; a three-day supply of water; quiet games; a flashlight with extra batteries; glasses; hearing aids; toiletries. Cots will not be provided, Johnson said.
Even for the well-prepared evacuee — and even when the county, the school district and the Red Cross have done their part to provide a safe environment — being in a shelter is not an easy ride, county and school officials say.
“It’s not a comfortable environment,” Davis said. “No part of it is comfortable. You’re displacing people out of their homes and putting them in a big room.”
Bill Johnson, Palm Beach County’s Emergency Management director, said the county last year took on more responsibilities staffing shelters, reducing reliance on the Red Cross.