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Emergency Management Introduces New Hurricane, Disaster Awareness Tools

This version of the article may have limited photos.  To see the story with all the pictures, click here.
 

emergency1By TIR STaff - Seventy-two lives, 650,000 homes and $50 billion in destruction was the price tag in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy in 2012. She came ashore in New Jersey as a post tropical storm; much of the damage caused by storm surge.

“Storm surge is the most deadly hazard from hurricanes,” Sally Bishop, Pinellas County director of emergency management, told reporters at a recent media event for the 2014 season.

Trying to get citizens to understand the evacuation levels, what they are based on and why they should evacuate is a huge challenge. “Storm surge … is the reason that we order evacuations other than for mobile homes and their wind vulnerability. We spend all this energy and time producing these maps and guides and online applications … and still folks don’t get that it is related to the amount of storm surge for their area,” said Bishop.

According to the county, evacuation zones are based on storm surge zones determined by the National Hurricane Center (NHC) in Miami, using ground elevation and the area’s vulnerability to storm surge from a hurricane. The evacuation zones are marked from A through E.

To help residents visualize their homes, businesses and neighborhoods in a surge situation, the county is developing an internet-based Storm Surge Depiction Application that they hope to make available later this year.

Much like the county’s “Know Your Zone” interactive site, people can input an address online and the application will show the area with similar type structures based on parcel data. Users can select to see the height of the water at various storm surge levels.

“It's not just what is happening to your house. That could be high and dry, but it’s the whole area, and that's the reason we would want you out of there,” adds Bishop. “Not just the vulnerability of your own home, but that of the entire neighborhood being impacted.”

emergency2Additionally, the NHC is working to improve overall awareness and understanding of the storm surge flooding threat with the issuance of an experimental Potential Storm Surge Flooding Map effective for 2014 for storms affecting the East and Gulf Coasts.

The NHC map shows a reasonable estimate of worst-case scenario flooding of normally dry land at particular locations due to storm surge. It depicts the risk associated with the storm surge hazard and was developed in consultation with social scientists, emergency managers, broadcast meteorologists and others.

It is based on the forecast track, intensity and size of a tropical storm or hurricane. It will take into account meteorological uncertainty, flooding due to storm surge by bodies of water, normal astronomical tides, land elevation, uncertainties in the track, landfall location, intensity, forward speed, and size of the storm.

It will not take into account wave action, freshwater flooding from rainfall, or flooding inside or overtopping of levees.

The map will be released by NHC with the first issuance of a hurricane watch or warning or, in some special cases, a tropical storm watch or warning and may change ever six hours in association with every new full advisory package. For the experimental period, the map will only be available on the NHC website via an interactive viewer at www.nhc.noaa.gov/cyclones.

These tools are a blessing and a curse to Bishop. “It’s a two-edge sword for us and for me as an emergency manager, because we want people to understand that this is the hazard; this is the threat and this is how bad it could be; but on the other side, I don’t want them to be making their evacuation decisions based on that. The evacuation level is what we put out,” she said. The NHC notes that people should pay attention to what local officials are saying.

emergency3“As the storm changes dramatically, the picture’s going to change dramatically,” continues Bishop. “We order evacuations after very lengthy discussions … (we) back everything up in time in order to completely evacuate before probable storm force winds arrive. It’s based on a worstcase scenario …and we have to make decisions far enough in advance based on the forecast at that time.

“We want people to utilize this because it gives them an idea of water above ground level… It's not to be used by the public to make a decision about whether or not to evacuate.”

The county also introduced “FirstCall” this spring. This supplementary information tool, free to residents, gives emergency managers multiple ways to contact people whenever an emergency situation arises. The system is only activated when there is a risk of significant harm, an urgent threat, or when a general notification is needed. Information can be sent via land lines, cell phones, e-mail and text messages based on information provided at registration which is required. Contact information will remain protected and confidential, and there is no limit on the number of subscribers per household. Registration is available on the county’s Emergency Management site. Subscribers to the earlier Citizens Notification Service will need to re-register for FirstCall. The county also recommends weather alert radios as a primary source of news and information.

The 2014 forecast is predicting a mild season, but right or wrong, Bishop says, “It only takes one!” And residents should keep in mind that, despite the storms in 2004, Pinellas County has not had a hurricane landfall since 1921. “None of us that are here and has ever even experienced a Category 1, so I try to remind folks to take it seriously and to really get prepared.”

 

Be Prepared During Hurricane Season

By Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice  - June 1 has come and gone, and that means hurricane season has begun. While Pinellas County hasn’t had a major hurricane impact in a number of years, it is important to stay vigilant. Just one storm is all it takes to put people and property in harm’s way.

The biggest hazard if a hurricane strikes is not the storm’s strong winds, it is what the winds cause: storm surge. Storm surge is a dome of water that is pushed ashore by high winds. The waters from storm surge pose great danger to anyone or anything in their path, so it is vitally important to be ready to evacuate if the order is given.

New this year is an easy way to receive evacuation orders and other emergency alerts during a storm — called FirstCall. Simply register your contact information at www.alertregistration.com/ PinellasCoFLEMS to receive notifications by phone, email and text message.

Where will you go during an evacuation? Make sure to have a plan in place. Host homes can be an excellent option. Friends or relatives living in a non-evacuation zone may have space for you to stay during a storm. Employers, places of worship, civic organizations and community groups can establish voluntary host home programs as well.

If a host home is not available, Pinellas County offers shelters during storms. Check the Pinellas County Emergency Management website for a list of open shelters. It is especially important to plan ahead if you or someone close to you has special needs. Register now for space in one of the county’s special needs shelters by contacting Emergency Management, your local fire department or your local healthcare provider. |

For more information on shelters, host home programs and the best ways to prepare yourself and your family for a hurricane, visit the Emergency Management website at www.pinellascounty. org/emergency. Remember to be prepared and make safety a priority this and every hurricane season.

 
 
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