Florida House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness Reviews Irma Challenges

Oct 27, 2017

The Florida House of Representatives’ Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness met yesterday, October 26, 2017, to discuss various disaster-response related items, including emergency management operational communications, evacuations, petroleum supplies and distribution, and electric utilities.  Presenters represented both public and private entities who are tasked with delivering these critical services to Floridians during emergencies.  

Nearly 6.5 million people were evacuated during Hurricane Irma, constituting the largest evacuation in Florida history, it was related.

Wes Maul, Interim Director of the Florida Department of Emergency Management (“DEM”), shared with the committee members his agency’s public communications system, which he said is designed to ensure that every Floridian who may be in harm’s way is altered to the impending dangers.  Leading up to and during Hurricane Irma, the DEM sent out 4,776 messages to 7.6 million recipients via telephone (land line and cellular), radio, television, and social media in order to reach as many people as possible.

Mr. Maul related that the DEM also coordinates communications between state and local governments during emergencies, and serves as the lead fuel agency in the state.  During emergencies, the DEM is responsible for co-ordinating and disseminating fuel waiver information; organizing fuel shipment escorts through law enforcement if needed; and co-ordinating related conference calls. 

Florida Department of Transportation (“DOT”) Secretary Mike Dew presented his agency’s proposed “Emergency Shoulder Use” plan for the State’s major highways during an evacuation situation.  By allowing drivers to use the shoulders during evacuation situations, a significant number of additional automobiles could utilize evacuation routes without disrupting local traffic flow or creating risks associated with contraflow systems (both sides of the highway traveling in one direction). 

In emergencies, the DOT coordinates with state and local law enforcement to establish police presence at highway rest stops and major highway intersections.  By having officers at these key locations, the DOT and law enforcement facilitate the timely arrival of first responders to evacuation route accident scenes. The DOT is also tasked with communicating with other states to which Floridians may be evacuating.

Members of the fuel and ports industry updated the Select Committee members on the effects that the 2017 hurricanes had on commercial fuel carriers and nearly 9,000 retail stations across Florida.  It was related that the Florida Ports Council and fuel companies worked with U.S. Department of Homeland Security to develop the “Florida Regional Resiliency Assessment Program,” which served to educate local responders and facilities on variety of existing fuel contracts and emergency implications. 

The fuel industry representatives also presented their preparations and restoration efforts.  These efforts included: fuel waivers to add flexibility to bring additional fuel into Florida; redirection of ships and barges to Florida; waivers for drivers to make distribution more efficient; daily meetings with the Governor to communicate status and concerns; provision of fuel products according to Florida emergency priorities; regular communications with federal, state and local agencies statewide; and the provision of additional out-of-state distribution resources.

Representatives from the Florida Public Service Commission, Duke Energy, Florida Power and Light, TECO, the Florida Municipal Electric Association, and the Florida Electric Cooperatives Association were also on hand yesterday to communicate various challenges and triumphs that were met during Hurricane Irma. Many of the utility companies sought resources from other states, including “armies” of utility workers, in an attempt to restore power to all Floridians who lost power during the storms.  

Presenters highlighted changes made after the 2004 and 2005 storm seasons that facilitated the rapid post-Irma restoration of power statewide.  Major flooding and storm surges on both of Florida coasts, downed trees, and wind-blown debris served as the main causes of power outages.  Communication with the DEM, local Emergency Operation Centers, FEMA, and first responders was a crucial factor in determining the success for the utility companies, it was explained.

To access video and materials for yesterday’s meeting, click here.

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