Florida's Hurricane Exercise Gets Underway

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

By BILL KACZOR
Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida began its sometimes annual hurricane exercise Monday after skipping the practice storm last year because officials were busy with a real emergency - the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

The hurricane taking aim at Florida is fictional, but it's designed to provide realistic training for a new emergency team headed by Gov. Rick Scott.

What's been dubbed "Hurricane Griffin" is following the same track as Hurricane Frances in 2004, taking the pretend storm across the southern part of Florida's peninsula from east to west and into the gulf toward Tallahassee.

That forced Scott and emergency mangers to evacuate the capital city for a temporary headquarters at the Florida National Guard's Fort Blanding near Jacksonville.

It's the first hurricane exercise for Scott, who was elected last November, but he's already mimicking his predecessors, Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist, by urging Floridians to "get a plan" during a news conference to kick off the four-day exercise.

Scott also issued a proclamation declaring this to be Florida Hurricane Preparedness Week in tandem with National Hurricane Preparedness Week.

State officials for years have been preaching that Floridians should develop a plan for evacuating or sustaining themselves by stocking up on necessities such as canned food, bottled water, flashlights, batteries and portable radios. The Division of Emergency Management offers guidance for such a plan on its website: http://www.FloridaDisaster.org.

Officials' biggest worry is complacency because Florida has gone five years without a hurricane landfall.

"We cannot, however, take this good fortune for granted," Scott said. "It is important that we remain prepared."

All state agencies as well as county emergency management departments are taking part in the exercise that will test computers, communications gear and other equipment as well as personnel. Officials will be coping with simulated flood and wind hazards as well as possible tornadoes spun off from the storm.

Once it makes landfall, the focus will shift to response, recover and restoration of services in southeast Florida while planning continues for a second landfall in the Panhandle.

The excise also is a first test for Scott's new emergency management director, Bryan Koon, although he had plenty of experience with disasters across the nation and around the world in his last job, including volcano eruptions and wildfires as well as hurricanes.

Koon was emergency management director for retail giant Wal-Mart. That gives him an insight into the private as well as public sectors when it comes to dealing with emergencies, Scott said.

Florida is "a much bigger stage," Koon said. "It will not be quite as wide geographically but a lot deeper."

While Florida could hold only exercises over the last five years, Koon handled Wal-Mart's response to hurricanes Gustav and Ike in 2008, learning how lessons were applied from 2005's Hurricane Katrina, one of the most devastating storms ever to hit the United States.

"We saw some of the issues with regards to talking to citizens about what potentially could be the consequences of a hurricane," Koon said. "We got to see how citizens responded to those types of communications messages."

Florida is trying out a new form of communications during the current exercise, a system that uses digital billboards to give the public emergency information.

One significant change Koon saw in 2008 was better coordination among various government agencies at all levels as well as businesses and private aid organizations.

"In Katrina and earlier, you saw stakeholders that were not fully engaged," Koon said. "What we saw starting with 2008 and I think will continue to see is emergency management working much more closely with them to take full advantage of all of the strengths they can bring to the table."

One problem that persists in Florida is a statewide shortage of hurricane shelters although some areas have a surplus, Koon said.

"We continue to decrease the deficit each year by expanding the potential shelters within the state by helping to fund some of the shelter projects that are going on in the schools," he said.

The last biennial state report in November showed Florida had a capacity for slightly more than 1 million people, but that's about 315,000 short of what's needed.


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