Keeping safe, when a hurricane threatens

Hurricane Season 2017 is underway, and the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office has shored up its ability to respond to the potential for deadly storms.

Within the past few months, Sheriff Chris Nocco has created an Emergency Management Division and has appointed two seasoned war veterans to top leadership positions.

Nocco named George McDonald as chief of the Joint Operations Bureau of the Pasco Sheriff’s Office and Jared Hill as director of Emergency Operations.

Storm surge causes the greatest damage during a hurricane. The rising water can destroy piers, erode beaches, flood properties and make areas impassable. (File)

McDonald is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel and has served in a variety of command, staff and leadership positions throughout his career.

The bureau — which encompasses Emergency Operations, Special Operations and Communications — oversees areas that directly connect to the county during critical situations.

It’s also responsible for training law enforcement and civilians within the Pasco Sheriff’s Office.

Hill, a retired U.S. Army Lt. Colonel, served as the 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) adjutant and the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force – Afghanistan assistant operations officer, among other assignments.

The pair’s military background should bode well if catastrophic events arise, whether it’s a hurricane or another disaster.

“Critical to the sheriff was the (agency’s) response to emergencies within the county, and what he wanted to do was bring in people who have been through different types of emergencies, and key to that was veterans,” McDonald said, during a recent press conference on hurricane preparedness.

Nearly a quarter of the agency has veteran experience, but McDonald insists it’s not about militarizing law enforcement.

Instead, he said, it’s about “using the experience we (veterans) had from our overseas deployment, not only in wartime, but in peacetime.”

This includes tactical skills, and the ability to task-organize in critical, high-pressure situations.

“We all served in combat zones, we’ve operated in stressful environments, and we were at ease working in an environment like that, and I think that’s a proven quality that the sheriff was looking for,” McDonald said.

The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season began June 1 and runs through Nov. 30.

If you live in an area that needs to evacuate, it’s good to know the evacuation route you’ll be taking. (File)

Hurricane experts say October is the most likely time for Florida to be hit with a tropical storm, due to the build up of energy in the atmosphere, accumulated through the summer months.

Last September, Hurricane Hermine was the first hurricane to make landfall in Florida since Hurricane Wilma in 2005, and the first to develop in the Gulf of Mexico since Hurricane Ingrid in 2013.

Hermine developed in the Florida Straits in August, and later spread to the Tampa Bay region.

Damage estimates from the storm exceeded $111 million in Pasco County alone.

In Pasco County, seven homes were destroyed and 305 homes sustained major damage.

Additionally, 796 homes were affected by the storm, but didn’t suffer any damage.

In preparation for another major storm, the Sheriff’s Office Emergency Management Division has been procuring surplus military gear, including high-powered generators, Humvees and portable field kitchens.

According to Hill, the agency is able to obtain the equipment for “pennies on the dollar” through the Law Enforcement Support Office, a subsidiary of the U.S. Department of Defense.

Hill said training and maintenance of the equipment also has been incorporated as part of the agency’s disaster planning process.

The county jail is another asset that can be harnessed during a hurricane by deploying prison labor to install sandbags to reduce potential for flooding in specific areas.

Additionally, nearly 400 volunteers are ready to help at a moment’s notice, via the agency’s Civilian Support Unit.

Each of those resources, Hill said, allows the Pasco Sheriff’s Office to “react a lot faster than most anybody else can within the county.”

Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco recently appointed two seasoned war veterans to top leadership positions within the agency’s Emergency Management Division. Jared Hill, left, is the agency’s director of Emergency Operations. George McDonald is chief of the Joint Operations Bureau of the Pasco Sheriff’s Office. Both have more than 20 years of military experience. (Kevin Weiss)

“We’re actively on the job everyday, we’re doing as much planning as we can,” Hill said. “Not that any plan is going to be perfect, but we’ve the ability to direct crisis situations and gather forces to help out in any situation.”

Should a hurricane strike, the Sheriff’s Office would work alongside the Pasco County Office of Emergency Management and Pasco County Fire Rescue, among other government agencies

“We’re not doing this unilaterally. We’re tied in to the county’s emergency management,” Hill said.

While wind and water pose dangers during a hurricane, there also are dangers in the aftermath.

County officials recommend avoiding roads covered by water and debris, and staying clear of downed power lines.

It’s also important to realize that water, not wind, is the most hazardous outcome of a tropical storm.

According to the National Hurricane Center, storm surge, rainfall flooding, high surf and deaths just offshore (within 50 nautical miles of the coast) combined for 88 percent of all deaths in the U.S. from hurricanes, tropical storms or tropical depressions from 1963 to 2012.

Other potential dangers can arise, too.

Snakes and other animals sometimes make their way into homes during a storm.

And, floodwaters can contain fecal matter, bacteria and viruses.

Food-safety hazards should be considered, too.

A refrigerator keeps food cold for up to four hours after loss of power, and then perishables should be moved to a cooler with ice.

If in doubt, throw it out.

“You don’t want to survive the storm and die of food poisoning,” Hill said.

Bracing for the storm

  • Prepare your home from wind damage before a storm threatens. Remove loose and damaged limbs from trees. Secure and brace external doors. Board up external windows.
  • Remove items around your home that could act as projectiles in high winds. Such objects include potted plants, barbecue grills, garden gnomes, chairs and garbage cans.
  • Place sand bags around low-lying areas near your house.
  • Well before any major storm hits, be sure to review your insurance. Be sure you have the proper amount of coverage to protect your home, business and belongings.
  • Stock up on hurricane supplies, including flashlights, batteries, self-powered portable lights, waterproof sheeting, a nonelectric food storage cooler, a portable generator and reusable ice.
  • Have personal items readily available. These should include blankets and pillows; hygiene supplies, moisture wipes and toilet paper; waterproof and seasonal clothing; reliable shoes; a first-aid kit and special medications; tools; and, cameras.
  • Protect your documents in a watertight plastic bag or waterproof container.
  • Fill your gas tank and have plenty of cash on hand, in case the storm knocks out power from gas pumps and ATMs.
  • Move your car as far inland as possible and on higher ground, to protect it from possible flooding, but do not park it next to a tree.

Be ready to evacuate, or shelter in place
If you are ordered to evacuate, know the local hurricane evacuation route(s) to take and have a plan for where you can stay.

  • Have a disaster supply kit you can take with you. It should include a flashlight, batteries, cash, required medicine, first aid supplies (kit), 2 gallons to 3 gallons of water per person, documents such as a driver’s license, Social Security card, passport, insurance information and tax documents, a hand-crank or battery-operated radio and a cellphone with a charged battery.
  • If you have a pet, have a plan for it. If you will need to evacuate, know where you can take your pet with you. Be sure to prepare a hurricane kit for your pet, including food, any medicines, toys, a bed and so on.
  • Have a family emergency communication plan. Your loved ones need to know how to contact you before the storm, and especially afterwards, when communication infrastructure may be damaged or overwhelmed.
  • Check on your neighbors to see if they need help.
  • If you are not in an area that is advised to evacuate, and you decide to stay in your home, plan for adequate supplies in case you lose power and water for several days, and you are not able to leave due to flooding or blocked roads. Be sure to have plenty of food. Suggested items include juices, crackers, breakfast and protein bars, canned and dried fruit, peanut butter, bread, canned protein (tuna, chicken, Spam), powdered milk and condiments. Also have on hand disposable utensils, plates and napkins.

During the storm

  • Stay inside and away from windows and doors
  • Close all interior doors
  • Keep curtains and blinds closed
  • Get into a small interior room, closet or hallway on the lowest level
  • Lie under a table or other sturdy objects

Returning home

  • Bring necessities, such as food and water, when you return
  • Keep an eye out for snakes and other animals that may have entered your home during the storm
  • Do not drive down roads covered by water or debris
  • Watch out for downed power lines and stay away from them
  • Avoid skin contact with floodwaters because the water can be carrying all sorts of contaminants such as fecal matter, bacteria and viruses.
  • Wear protective clothing and use proper equipment when cleaning up the mess the storm left behind. Before trimming trees, make sure there are no power lines nearby.
  • Be sure to use plastic sheeting to cover roof damage and/or broken windows, to keep water from entering your home or business.
  • Contact your insurance agent to report any covered damage to your home, apartment or vehicle. Be sure to have detailed photographs, so you can submit them with your claims.
  • Save receipts for all dining, hotel, medical, hygiene and even entertainment. Some of these items may be eligible for reimbursement. Save the receipts from the time you leave your home until you return to stay there.
  • Watch out for scams and unlicensed contractors. Verify the contractor’s business license and insurance. Make sure quotes are in writing.

                                                                      — Compiled by B.C. Manion and Kevin Weiss

Sources: Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, Hillsborough County, Pasco County, Florida Department of Business & Professional Regulation, Boatsetter, and Tree Care Industry Association.

Published July 26, 2017

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