Labor Day a year ago, Hurricane Hermine ravaged Tallahassee as it swept through the Big Bend part of Florida.
At the time, local government here was woefully unprepared for the damage caused by this Category 1 hurricane because we hadn’t been hit in many years.
However, Citizens for Responsible Spending (CRS), a Tallahassee-based group of private-sector business leaders took it upon themselves to form a task force which would quickly look at the three key phases: Before, During and After the Emergency of any natural disaster -- hurricanes, tornados or wildfires.
The Post-Hurricane Recovery Task Force’s leadership was former Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp as the chair and Sam Bell, P.E. (Ret.) as the vice chair. Jeff had been through many hurricanes in his life as had Sam, and Sam’s 30-plus years of utility experience was especially helpful.
The task force compiled a list of thoughtful and insightful recommendations, many of which have since been implemented by the Leon County Commission, and to a lesser extent by the Tallahassee City Commission.
The lessons learned from Hermine, and the huge problems that Floridians now face from Irma behoove us to look again at this 16-member task force’s final work product.
By the way, the task force included two former state legislators, three former agency heads, three current or former association executives whose members have serious obligations during hurricanes, an insurance agent, a banker, among others.
We also enjoyed technical assistance from the county, city, the Florida Municipal Electric Association and Tallahassee Goodwill.
The most important recommendations were:
- Utilities/Government need to know in advance where hospitals, police/fire/EMT’s, nursing homes, ALF’s, and day care centers are located and have a plan to restore power to these facilities first to preserve lives
- Creation of a county/city Smartphone app for citizens to access timely and accurate information on status of the storm, power restoration timelines, road closures, when it’s safe to return to your home, debris removal updates, etc.
- Advance designation of water/ice/food distribution sites so that citizens know where to go in their city/county before the storm hits
- Trimming trees to a 10-foot radius (very controversial in tree-loving Tally and was eventually cut back to a 6-foot radius) around power lines to help minimize lines being knocked down, and this includes proper placement of future trees in our communities
- The state should use its buying power to offer emergency generators at bulk/wholesale prices to citizens through a program in concert with utility companies (investor-owned, municipal and rural electric cooperatives) where an extra monthly fee ($5-10) can be tacked onto their utility bill to allow those unable to afford a generator to buy and have one to retain water/ice/food.
The last recommendation is perhaps the most important, especially because nearly one-fourth of all Florida residents were impacted by power outages from Irma -- and some still don’t have power:
While emergency generators wouldn’t be enough to provide anything more than power for a refrigerator/freezer and microwave, and perhaps a small window air conditioner unit, it will allow citizens to at least have some life-safety needs addressed until full power is restored.
The Florida Legislature should empower the governor to announce a procurement to all emergency generator manufacturers and ask them to provide a variety of gas/natural gas emergency generators and their best/lowest price. A list of approved manufacturers could then be put on the approved state list, and any utility or local government that wanted to participate could -- in a no-interest or a low-interest program for their customers.
Florida has been blessed over the years to have governors who have excelled in warning and encouraging residents to be prepared for a natural disaster. Governor Jeb Bush especially comes to mind since he probably encountered more hurricanes than any other governor and he consistently did an outstanding job.
Likewise, Gov. Rick Scott has picked up the mantle of leadership and his constant announcements before Irma, were a lesson in how best to execute emergency management.
Of course, despite dutiful preparations and evacuations, a Cat 4 or 5 storm is exceedingly difficult to recover from, regardless of one’s preparations.
One of the best things that Gov. Scott oversaw after Hurricane Hermine was using the Florida Department of Transportation to facilitate the removal of trees so power companies could get to the power lines to begin the repair process. He even provided a daily list of which streets had been cleared, which streets DOT was working on -- and importantly, when they expected to be finished, and which streets were next on the list. It provided a lot of reassurance to Tallahassee residents that state resources were there to help local government get the job done expeditiously and safely.
Because Irma rained destruction across a good swath of Florida, his solution for Tallahassee must now be reconsidered for the state level.
But we have seasoned emergency management officials at the state and local level who can help us to be better prepared the next time we face a looming disaster. And that may not be very far in the future.
You can review the 9-page task force recommendations by clicking here.
Barney Bishop III is the founder and chair of Citizens for Responsible Spending, a Tallahassee-based group of private-sector business leaders who advocate for cutting expenses before raising taxes. He’s also the immediate past-CEO of Associated Industries of Florida and a 37-year lobbyist. He can be reached at Barney@BarneyBishop.com