Flagler County Emergency Operations Center Hosts Roundtable on Hurricane Preparedness

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On May 30th, 2023, Flagler County Governments Emergency Operations Director Jonathon Lord held a roundtable with media companies in the area, to talk about the upcoming hurricane season, and help prepare the public on changes, awareness, and emergency safety.   In this roundtable Director Lord spent time talking about changes to the way they respond to different aspects of emergency management specifically regarding hurricanes, along with other important hurricane information that the community needs to know in order to be best prepared for the upcoming storm season.

During the roundtable Director Lord talked about our storm history in Flagler County, and that all of the most recent storms, Ian,  Nicole, Matthew, Irma, etc., may have all started out as major storms, but by the time they impacted Flagler they were only tropical storm impacts, aside from the storm surge. While they all were major storms either before Flagler County, or off the coast of Flagler County, we in Flagler County, only saw tropical storm impacts here.  Director Lord also mentioned that while we have never had impacts from a major hurricane impact here in Flagler, it is not scientifically impossible. Director Lord wanted to stress that while we have not seen massive storm damage like Lee County did with Ian, it is not out of the realm of possibilities. He brought up that the panhandle never hat a Category 5 hurricane until they were hit with Hurricane Michael.  He urges residents to never be complacent, and that residents should always remain vigilant because storms can and do change.

Storm surge was one of the biggest threats that Director Lord talked about in the roundtable. the NHC provides updated data about every ten years that helps Emergency Operations understand how far the storm surges and potential threats extend inland. There are areas in Palm Coast were the storm surge could potentially be seen West of I-95, although I-95 provides a good barrier against the storm surge. Wind damages are not as big a threat as the storm surge and flooding, but can still be a potential threat. Many homes are built to withstand 130 mph winds, mobile homes and trailers are not able to handle the same high level winds.

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According to the NHC they are currently predicting an average year, as far as the number of storms we could see, while Colorado State University is predicting a slightly below average year. Directory Lord did say that he prefers to warn people that the annual forecast doesn’t always matter. One storm during a slow year can still be devastating.

Directory Lord talked about utilizing the NHC’s Tropical Weather Outlook, on their NHC NOAA website. One big change that the NHC has added is that they are now offering a 2day and a 7 day outlook, instead of a 5 day outlook, with updates every 6 hours. This is public information as well, so anyone can go to the https://www.nhc.noaa.gov/ and see potential storms as they are forming, and track the paths, potential tracks and how likely they are to form into storms.

Not only does the EOC, and Directory Lord do interviews, public meetings, media releases just like this one, but they also sit down with all the assisted living centers to make sure that they know the rules about caring for their residents during an emergency, they review their emergency plans, and generally make sure that they are ready to handle the upcoming storm season.

The EOC was able to purchase a trailers that they can use for field distributions, field offices and other needs during a time of emergency whether it is to hand out food, supplies, water, or offer Flagler County Staff an office space in the field should they have need for that, and the trailer was paid for by federal grants.

Directory Lord talked about backup communication tools. While all of us including the government has many fancy technological equipment like phones, computers, and a variety of other means of communications, it will and can go down during a hurricane. When the internet and phones are down, they need a way to communicate. They have started testing all of the older equipment like HAM radios and other older means of communications to ensure that they still have ways to send messages out during power outages or storms. Other counties in North and Central Florida have also started testing the older equipment as well so that there can be communication amongst them all.

Another big project the Director Lord has been working on and that is the EMAP, or Emergency Management Accreditation Program, that tests whether Flagler County is holding up to the national standard or not. They are currently being reviewed by EMAP to determine if they can be accredited or not, and that helps because it ensures not only the staff, but residents that we are at or above the national standard for emergency response.

One very big change happening this year in Flagler County in regards to hurricanes, is that the EOC is no longer using letter names for their evacuation zones. Director Lord talked about for years now he has had residents say they were confused as to how the zones worked, mostly because the City of Palm Coast is known for it’s “lettered neighborhoods” which was confusing when talking about lettered evacuation zones. The EOC is now going to focus on the exact neighborhood name, by either evacuating the entire neighborhood, or by street names, to help simplify the evacuation process.  So for instance, if the B Section of Palm Coast was to be evacuated, they would be stating the B section, or the B section East of Bell Terre. This will hopefully avoid the confusion of years past. A new map is being released now showing the potential hurricane evacuation zone, and the potential flood zone.  The Hurricane zone has now been extended just a little bit larger, in order to err on the side of caution, as well as due to updated storm surge data from the NHC and other weather experts. The other area is on the west side of the County, and that is a potential flood zone, due to the lakes and the St. Johns River. This is one of the biggest calls to action the the EOC is wanting to shed some light on in the public setting, making sure you know what, if any, evacuation zone you live in according to the new evacuation zones. The timing of evacuations is not an exact science so the public is urged to pay attention to the weather experts, the EOC and other officials in regards to the safety of you and your families during a potential storm or emergency. Complacency is one thing that Director Lord urges people to avoid.

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Another change happening when it comes to messaging from the EOC during storms is that they will not be “closing” the bridge but instead properly communicating that the bridge will not close, but it will be limited to barrier island residents and the west bound lanes will always remain open so that residents are able to leave. The east bound lanes will be manned by law enforcement, but west bound lanes will remains open. The only time the bridge will deemed closed if there is damage to the bridge and then it will be completely closed and remain closed until it can be inspected by a bridge architect to ensure it’s safety. The reason for the change in language was due to some confusion as to whether barrier island residents could leave when the bridge was “closed” in the past. It was never closed but Director Lord now realizes that the terminology used to communicate before was misleading. From this point on, the communications will be much more straightforward and clear, to prevent confusion during an emergency.

If you go to https://www.flaglercounty.gov/departments/emergency-management, you can find the local weather stations and their updates, most have cameras which allow you to look and see conditions around the county right from your phone or laptop.

Currently, we are in the middle of one of two sales tax holidays. This allows residents to buy storm supplies without paying the sales tax, the state has added items this year, and the cap for generators has been increased from $1,000 to $3,000. There is also a second sales tax holiday for storm supplies, which is a big thing, as this second tax holiday comes right before peak season. It will be August 26th through September 8th.  The EOC also has a disaster preparedness guide that they are trying to share with the community to help them be prepared for any kind of disaster, be it a hurricane or even a tornado.  Director Lord also urges citizens to make a plan, especially if you live in one of the evacuation zones. He urges people to know who they can stay with, where they can go, have their supplies, etc., before we get into storm season.

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AlertFlagler is a service that the EOC pushes in order to make sure residents are informed in their area. You can sign up multiple phones and homes, and get alerts for your neighborhood. This includes tornado and weather alerts, missing persons, and other alerts from the sheriff as well as other municipalities. Director Lord also brought up how important having an old fashioned battery or hand cracked radio on hand, for when the power is out and the phone towers are down, messages and alerts can still be broadcasted to the community.

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My Safe Florida Home is a new program, that any Florida homeowner can utilize. This program is 100% free, and it gives home owners the ability to get free wind mitigation inspections on their homes. This helps to get homeowners grants for needed upgrades, as well as potential discounts on your insurance if your inspection proves you meet all the criteria to receive a certificate that certifies your home prepared.

CERT is a class, Community Emergency Response Team, it is a 30 hour class, in January, in spring, and in fall. This class helps train residents in how to respond to community emergencies, which can help lighten the load that Emergency Personnel may be facing during a county wide emergency like a hurricane.  This helps residents to understand when they can help and when they can’t and how they can be helping their community after a catastrophic event.

Director Lord touched on the Dunes project at the behest of Pierre, from FlaglerLive, and explained that many of the projects are still in progress. Some projects like the Army Core of Engineers project, has yet to even begin, but the last hold out, in regards to that project has been settled so progress is expected to start sometime within the next year. The dunes are important not just to Flagler Beach residents but to help protect us, so there are varying points that are weaker than other, and varying points of the dunes that are stronger than others. The project of fixing the dunes will be a project that lasts for potentially years.

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Hurricane preparedness is important, and citizens are urged to be proactive and remain vigilant because storm predictions are not always guaranteed, and citizens need to remain alert and not become complacent. The possibility for a bad storm is always there, even if it isn’t highly likely, the possibility remains.

By Krys DeWind

Krys DeWind has been a Flagler County resident since 2016. She is active in her community and is always looking for ways to better it. She has a community first attitude which is one of the central founding ideals of the Flagler County Buzz.

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