|Date:||May 15, 2019|
|Author:||Joe Mario Pedersen|
Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.
“That’s how I felt,” said Bay County director of emergency management, Joby Smith, reflecting on the fallout of Hurricane Michael - a category 5 storm with winds stronger than 157 mph.
Smith’s words of what he learned after Michael echoed around a room filled by hundreds at the 33rd Annual Governor’s Hurricane Conference in West Palm Beach on Wednesday.
Smith’s experience in Hurricane Michael is a testament to how the best laid plans of emergency management can go awry.
There was a vision of a plan, but it was cast to the wind when forecasters released the developments on Michael, Smith said.
“We knew we weren’t completely ready for what was coming,” he said.
Before Michael, the last strong storm to hit the Florida panhandle was Ivan in 2004. Earlier in 2018, panhandle residents faced Tropical Storm Alberto.
Earlier in 2018 Smith had one full time emergency staff member under his command in 2018.
Both thought the worst was behind them, and he was looking forward into the 2019 hurricane season.
And then a warning came in September about another tropical storm - Michael.
Seven days before the projected time of landfall Smith activated an emergency operations center, put an appropriate plan to action and prepared for what he thought might be another Alberto.
And 73 hours later, the punch came.
Michael quickly intensified into a Category 5 storm, the fourth to ever hit the United States.
A last-minute, all-hands-on-deck call to action was made which doubled the staff at the EOC and made neighboring rescue agencies ready to deploy after the storm.
Three shelters were quickly opened, but there was still a big problem facing not only Bay County but also Calhoun County.
Emergency managers were faced with an attitude of hubris by some residents who had weathered hurricanes before unharmed, said Adam Johnson, interim director of emergency management in Calhoun County, who also spoke about his experience with Michael.
“I think we lack a culture of self reliance and individual preparedness," Johnson said. "We try to stress the importance of prepare now and prepare early.”
Emergency managers pushed the threat level of the storm as much as they were able to with social media under the constraint of 73 hours.
Thirty-six people died as a result of Hurricane Michael - 26 of them lived in Bay County.
Bay County had $661 million in damages, 17 million cubic yards of debris, 20,000 residents displaced and 13 percent of Bay County students who were never able to return to school because of damages.
The county has received $250 million worth of support and is still in repair.
No amount of preparation can outweigh the sheer force of nature’s most powerful storm, Smith reflected. But it’s not about if you get punched. It’s about how you react.
“I think we saved lives because we added more than double the amount of people working in our evacuation zones at that point,” Smith said.
Smith’s words of preparedness came just after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill approving a week-long, tax-free holiday on disaster supplies starting May 31, just before the start of the 2019 hurricane season
“The theme here is readiness,” Smith said. “We got knocked down, but we’re not down for the count. We faced our adversity. And I think we are stronger."