Tension filled the classroom. Although the students attending the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Advanced Public Information Officer class in Emmitsburg, Md. were 150 miles inland, they were becoming increasingly distracted as forecasts called for the storm to make landfall much too close for comfort.
As the winds howled that Monday night in late October, the students did not enjoy a restful night. When they assembled in class on Tuesday, it was apparent that the worst of the storm had passed to the north…
to New Jersey…and New York.
For some, it was called a “Superstorm.” Others called it a hurricane. Whatever you call it, Sandy was a powerful system that forever changed the lives of the people it touched – as a storm survivor or as a responder.
Now imagine a similar storm bearing down on northeast Florida. What would you do? Are you ready? Really ready?
“It’s my biggest nightmare,” said Aaron Stormant, chief of Jacksonville District’s Emergency Management Branch. “Not only would we have to find people and methods to continue our critical operations, we’d also have to manage an influx of responders that would come from other Corps districts to help us carry out disaster recovery missions to help the citizens of the impacted area.”
Continuing to operate in the aftermath of a major storm will be the focus of an exercise the district is conducting with its leaders June 4. The continuity of operations, or COOP exercise, allows the district to review its plan for conducting its most crucial tasks after it loses a critical facility, such as its main office.
“We will be exercising what roles we would take if the district headquarters building goes down,” said Stormant. “Whether it’s a notice event like a hurricane, or a no-notice event like a fire, there are certain functions the district must continue to execute, even if the building where we normally work is not available. This exercise tests our capabilities in that regard.”
In such a scenario, where the headquarters building or any other work facility were damaged, Stormant says it would be important for supervisors and employees to be able to contact each other.
“Everyone needs to make sure their supervisor has their updated contact information,” said Stormant. “Additionally, it’s important to prepare ourselves and our families, to ensure we have a plan for what we should do in a variety of hurricane scenarios.”
Stormant says those people with response roles have an extra responsibility to ensure their family has a good plan.
“It’s much harder to focus on disaster response activities if your family has unmet needs,” he said. “Responders need a plan in place so they can continue their mission.”
On this particular day in mid-May, Stormant has paused from a very busy spring schedule that was keeping him focused on preparations for the 2013 hurricane season, which officially started June 1.
The month of May had him and his assistant, Logan Wilkinson, conducting briefings in Puerto Rico, participating in exercises with the state of Florida and with officials in the Virgin Islands, and organizing the COOP exercise for Jacksonville District. Additionally, Stormant and Wilkinson have been attending training on the Corps’ role in FEMA disaster missions, and they have been inspecting flood control structures around the state as part of their preparedness activities.
Despite a lot of activity from tropical storms in 2012, it has been seven years since Florida saw its last hurricane. Stormant worries about complacency setting in.
“A lot of people have left the district since we opened our last RFO [Recovery Field Office] in Palm Beach County in 2005,” said Stormant. “It’s been even longer, all the way back to the 90s, since we opened RFOs in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. There are fewer and fewer people within the district that have any disaster response experience.”
Sandy did offer an opportunity for 20 people from the Jacksonville District to get some disaster response experience. Employees from the district filled a wide variety of roles to include quality assurance specialists, safety specialists and mission management.
Opportunities abound for district employees who would like to assist. Jacksonville District is able to field planning and response teams (PRTs) for temporary housing and temporary roofing. Additionally, Stormant says employees can augment staffing within the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), provide engineering support for FEMA Urban Search & Rescue teams, or assist with conducting infrastructure assessments.
“During 2012, we found we have many very skilled employees in Jacksonville District that are able to respond in a crisis,” said Stormant. “We were capable, ready and willing to support.”
Some forecasters are calling for an active hurricane season in 2013. The Colorado State University meteorological team is predicting 18 named storms, with nine predicted to become hurricanes. Accuweather specifically states in their report that Florida is long overdue for a direct hit.
For more information on hurricane preparedness measure, visit the following websites:
FEMA individual preparedness www.ready.gov/hurricanes
Florida Division of Emergency Management www.floridadisaster.org
National Hurricane Center www.nhc.noaa.gov/prepare
American Red Cross www.redcross.org/prepare/disaster/hurricane