County tweaks pre­pared­ness plans post-Irma

Prin­ci­pals, staff get ex­tra train­ing; shel­ter is­sues are ad­dressed.

The Palm Beach Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Wayne Wash­ing­ton and An­drew Marra Palm Beach Post Staff Writ­ers

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.”

DA­MON HIG­GINS / THE PALM BEACH POST 2014

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.

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