Local Government Leaders Offer Hurricane Preparation Strategies

By: - September 18, 2018

The 2018 hurricane season is here. This time last year I wrote about Hurricane Harvey and the devastation along the Texas Gulf Coast — dumping almost 27 trillion gallons of rain over Texas. That was just a staggering amount of rain. We tend to think of trillions concerning the national debt and not in gallons of water!

As a newly appointed city administrator, I had the opportunity to attend a conference with other local government leaders from across my state. One of the most important topics of discussion in one of our sessions was: “What can municipal/county leaders do to prepare for the upcoming hurricane season?”

Although located several hundred miles from the coast and relatively safe from the initial impact of a hurricane making landfall, the second and third order effects of a storm cannot be ignored, and as local government leaders we must have plans and preparations in place. Strong winds, heavy rain, tornadoes, and particularly flash flooding are widespread as a storm crawls inland.

City administrators and county managers, who were in the thick of it last year when Harvey slammed into Texas, sat for a panel discussion and offered these valuable insights, lessons learned and essential takeaways on hurricane preparation.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

The panel could not emphasize this enough. Use all forms of communication at your disposal. Information must flow quickly and accurately. Work closely with your Emergency Operations Center (EOC) staff to communicate and verify the latest information. Keep elected officials fully informed and designate a spokesperson.

Social media serves as a great emergency management tool and has changed the way we communicate. YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter are tools at your disposal for communicating and disseminating information. Post information on these social media outlets; monitor social media and respond quickly to questions from the community.

A Scientific American article noted that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in its 2013 National Preparedness Report found that during Hurricane Sandy, “users sent more than 20 million Sandy-related Twitter posts, despite the loss of cell phone service during the peak of the storm.”

Did you know there are mobile apps you can use to help provide accurate information to your community and keep them in the know? Hurricane by American Red Cross is a mobile app that gives real-time information on what to do before, during and after hurricanes. It includes an “I’m Safe” feature to message family and friends that you are not in harm’s way. Available in both English and Spanish, the FEMA App provides severe weather alerts, allows users to not only upload disaster-related photos but to also apply for federal disaster assistance with the app.

Prepare Early and Expect the Unexpected

During the conference, critical questions asked were: “How often do you review your Emergency Management plans? When was the last time it was revised? Do you conduct staging exercises? How do you plan to coordinate with local/state agencies, first responders (law enforcement, fire, EMS) and other jurisdictions to share information and resources, and what are the roles and responsibilities of critical operational positions?”

Maintaining close situational awareness and activating your EOC early are key factors. In the lead up to a hurricane making landfall, there is some time to activate needed staff, check public works water and sewer systems for weak links, pre-position assets, and locate emergency shelters not subject to flooding.

One city manager noted, “Identify routes to those shelters. Know your rescue capability and which neighborhoods are prone to high water flooding. Those folks will no doubt need rescue and transportation to the nearest shelter. Pre-position staff and supplies at your shelters. Be flexible and have alternate plans in place. Sometimes you need Plan B and C.”

Take Care of Your People

Another county official said that during her first major storm, she and her staff were in the EOC for up to 72 hours. Lessons learned? “Rotate schedules within the EOC for the team to rest and be fed. Police, fire, public works, and 911 staff were overwhelmed. Take care of your people on the frontlines. Remember that it is stressful for them too. While they are taking care of our community, we need to support them.

“We now have in place a 311 line that can be used for non-emergency calls, taking some of the burdens off of our 911 system. Calling the 311 line, residents hear an automated message giving up-to-date information before, during, and after the storm. This relieves a lot of calls to the 911 system, and that has made a huge difference.”

Document, Document, Document

A FEMA disaster declaration sets into motion a whole new set of federal rules and regulations that must be followed precisely. All agreed that a pre-disaster accounting team must be staffed and in place to immediately capture and document costs and purchases, and to establish procedures for handling all documentation. Photographs and videos are essential. One county employed a drone to view and record the widespread flooding from the crested riverbanks to assess the miles of flooding.  All participants concurred, “You can’t have too much documentation!”

Begin Recovery and Clean-up Efforts Quickly

Assemble a team whose focus is recovery and clean-up. Involve and get approval from your city council for your recovery plans. Get debris removed as quickly as possible. Going back to the first point, communicate to your community all progress reports and provide constant updates and information, urging safety and precaution of residents while clean-up efforts are active.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service crew member clears downed tree from a public road. (Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

One city manager said that having “pre-disaster contracts and points of contact” as part of their emergency management response plan allowed them to utilize not only city resources for clean-up but to bring in those outside resources to immediately respond and begin clean-up efforts. He also said that one of the most substantial expenses that a city will incur in the aftermath is debris removal.

A Final Takeaway

As local government leaders, each of the “veterans” of Hurricane Harvey recalled leadership lessons and challenges they faced that were both personal and professional. One official said, “Unless you get out there and see it for yourself,  you can’t believe it!” Another said, “It was like a death, I was grieving.”

A community is significantly affected by the devastation of a hurricane (or other natural disaster), and they look to local government leaders to lead the charge for recovery and to provide a vision for the way forward. One local leader called it a “re-envisioning” and “re-imagining” of what the community could become in the wake of such devastation.

It is essential to convey resilience and get back on track as quickly as possible to restore a sense of normalcy. When asked by a conference attendee, “How do you know when that happens? What does that look like?” this leader responded, “It’s getting people back to work, kids back in school, and resuming their daily life.”

As professional city and county leaders, these men and women are experts in what they do. They have led the charge to respond and rebuild, noting it is a marathon, not a sprint. You have to be in it for the long-haul, they said.

They have literally weathered the storm. Their communities have rebuilt and risen from the aftermath having turned crisis into an opportunity to make their communities a model of sustainability, efficiency, and a great place to live.

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