“I sat in a back corner of a room a lot like this in 1992, when I worked for Miami-Dade County,” related Roger Hernstadt, the new Town Manager for Fort Myers Beach to local emergency personnel in Town Hall on Monday afternoon, June 19. “It was another hurricane preparedness seminar, I had been to a bunch of them, and I thought, “Here we go again,’ half paying attention and half thinking about all the work on my desk that wasn’t getting done. Then in August, Hurricane Andrew hit! You can’t describe the massive damage unless you see it first-hand; until you cannot recognize the street you live on or your house. We must prepare for the worst-case scenario and make sure we have a plan for when everything is total chaos.”
Hernstadt introduced William Wagner III, a retired fire chief with 38 years in emergency management service including serving as a Federal Emergency Management Agency Hurricane Liaison Team member, Florida Emergency Preparedness Association intermediary and Chief Operating Officer of Early Alert Real Time Emergency Management. “I have been deployed to numerous hazard sites throughout Florida and the nation, as well as coming from Monroe County in the Florida Keys; the hurricane and evacuation capital of the world!”
As the Town assembles its Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan (CEMP), “The Town Manager is ‘The Guy,’” emphasized Wagner. “The Town Manager recommends to Town Council to initiate the plan, and he is responsible for everything because he communicates with police and fire and Lee County and public works and gives the staff certain lines of authority. Continuity of operations and continuance of government are crucial at this point, so the Town Manager should have the elected official-in-charge attached to him at the hip, to provide instant authority and direction. The Town Manager keeps all stakeholders informed on all matters. Do not bypass this chain-of-command or stray from the objectives, or even more chaos will erupt when you can least afford it.” The plan addresses all hazards, not just hurricanes, but also other contingencies like oil spills or a bridge collapse.
18 Straight Days
“The Town Manager’s main team are key Town employees,” added Wagner, “whose responsibilities parallel their normal day-to-day functions, with Public Works, Legal, Planning, Community Development, Administration & Finance, and so on. You need to take several classes to obtain this certification, but most are online. It is up to the Town Manager if he will evacuate you to an off-island location; if your plan is good, you should be able to do that and still manage effectively. If the Town has to activate its Emergency Operations Center, staff must be ready for a long haul. It is not uncommon, for a Category 2 storm, to be on-duty for 3 weeks, on 12-hour shifts.” “I was on the job after Andrew for 18 straight days,” Hernstadt recollected.
Wagner emphasized that “your personal hurricane plan is critical to this, or the Town as well as your family is in deep trouble! You need to ensure the safety of your family and everything necessary to take care of them, or you are of no value to your Town. One of the major problems for New Orleans after Katrina was employees never returned to work because they did not take a proactive approach for their own families. Your plan will include 12-hour shifts so you can check on your loved ones and keep your peace of mind as much as possible, because unless you know your family is in the best possible situation, you are of little use to your community.”
Once the Town establishes its emergency plan and process, “train, update, practice, and use it,” stressed Wagner! “Train with it before the storm, as by the time the hurricane arrives, it is too late, so be familiar with every chapter of it in advance because when and after the hurricane hits, it is overwhelming. All this may look daunting and impossible but, believe me, you can do this.”
“We will develop and have our plan,” concluded Hernstadt, “but the tendency of human nature to become complacent. You drive over that bridge a thousand times, and you think about a thousand different things, and all your other duties and assignments, but this training is so important and you all will have staff assignments with the proper training, because this may be the most important things we will ever do while in Town government. When times are really as bad as they can get here, that is when the citizens count on us the most; not for code enforcement or filling pot holes, but when they are really lost and everything they have depends on us. This is serious, serious stuff, and we take it seriously!”