FORECAST: Orange County, municipal leaders talk lessons learned after Irma

After Hurricane Irma, local city and county leaders reflect on what improvements they can make for the 2018 hurricane season.

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  • | 12:35 p.m. January 5, 2018
  • West Orange Times & Observer
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After weathering Hurricane Irma — which experts have called the most powerful Atlantic storm in a decade — and many before it, Orange County leaders know a thing or two about disaster preparedness.

Hurricane Charley, which made landfall in the state as a Category 4 in 2004, was previously the strongest storm to hit the area. But after Irma tore through Central Florida in September, Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs said the storm damage was far greater than Charley’s aftermath. 

Charley was a more powerful storm, but Irma was much larger in breadth. With more than $51.5 million in damage countywide, Irma was a force — one that had residents bracing for the worst. 

Although basic emergency-management protocols are similar, no two municipalities are exactly the same.



New to the city of Maitland since Charley hit is a different emergency operations center (EOC). The result of a FEMA grant, Maitland’s EOC enabled the use of all of the city’s technological equipment to assist in communications and storm tracking.

City Manager Sharon Anselmo noted that social media was largely nonexistent in 2004, so it was an added resource for communication this time around.

“We implemented a debris hotline, which was very helpful in allowing the departments to focus on recovery and have one clear set of answers to debris- and storm-related questions,” Anselmo said. “We manned it on the weekends as well, a change from Matthew, which we will do again in the next event as we believe it was very successful.”

Anselmo added that the city has submitted two grants to FEMA, one to add a generator to the city gall and another to add permanent generators to several lift stations so that staff does not have to keep moving portable generators.

Maitland city leaders also plan to standard some of its communications so less time is spent preparing communications during an emergency. Its fire department will focus on generator-safety education prior to and during the upcoming hurricane season.

“One of our changes for this season will be to create a single page on our website for all up-to-date information and keep directing folks to the page via social media, rather than continuing to respond to individuals posting on social media,” Anselmo said. “We will be working with Duke Energy to address some of the issues encountered with communication during the recovery. …The city, as well as some other cities locally, also had a failure of the pre-contracted debris hauler to perform debris removal activities which resulted in a slow start to debris removal, but ultimately was able to contract and get the work performed by a local contractor.”



Although the county itself made minor changes in areas such as sandbag distribution and traffic signal maintenance, as well as mass sheltering, operational plans, resources and policies in place have remained largely the same since 2004.

Keith Kotch, assistant manager of the Orange County Fire Rescue Department and Office of Emergency Management, said although preparedness planning is important and there are common threads among storms, each incident is unique and presents its own challenges.

“Hurricane Irma brought the similar issues of widespread power outages; areas of flooding; and food, water and ice needs, but the extent or scale of the issues was more unique,” he said. “The fact that the majority of the state was impacted the same way added to the apparent slowness of recovery, as service providers and vendors were affected as they had not been before. Not being able to count on quick resupply of local grocery stores and restaurants was a new challenge, as was the issue with protecting life amongst area health care facilities that had lost power.”

Effective and progressive emergency management and preparedness activities are always based upon post-hurricane evaluations and lessons learned, Kotch said.

“Some areas that are being re-evaluated due to our ‘lessons learned’ from the past couple of hurricane seasons, especially from Irma, include: sheltering issues such as pet-friendly sheltering, medical special-needs sheltering, issues caused by extensive and long-term power outages, flooding mitigation efforts and joint public/private response and recovery efforts,” Kotch said.

He encourages residents to take the time now to prepare for future disasters by developing a personal and family disaster plan.

“The time to plan and prepare is now when we are enjoying blue skies, not when storm clouds are on the horizon,” Kotch said. “Being prepared is not just a hurricane season thing, it’s a thing for all seasons and all types of disasters.”



Ocoee’s Emergency Operations Center is located in the Ocoee Fire Department headquarters and serves as the central location for government officials and primary and support agencies to establish their command post in the event of a major event or disaster.

In the aftermath of Irma, the city hired a debris management contractor to collect storm debris citywide. Contractors worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, to collect the debris — a process that was anticipated to take two months.

Although Ocoee planned to pay for the $1.2 million contract from its reserves, it also expects to be reimbursed by FEMA in the future.

In the days leading up to Irma, Ocoee distributed more than 2,000 sand bags to residents and also opened Ocoee High School as one of Orange County’s five host shelters for South Florida and coastal evacuees.



Windermere might be small, but its preparation and recovery efforts were mighty.

Town Manager Robert Smith said the town has a standard procedure in place for all hurricanes, but it still dealt with challenges posed by Irma. This included relocating police personnel to the Ocoee Police Department during the storm because of inadequate facilities and difficulty with communications because the town does not have an operational EOC.

“Staff worked hard, and we were able to clear the debris within 25 days of the storm,” Smith said. “Residents need to be aware that during and immediately after a storm event such as this it is better to stay indoors until they receive an all clear from local officials. Families were walking around with downed power lines, trees and hanging limbs.”

To prepare for this season, the town will be looking into establishing redundant emergency contracts for debris clean-up. Town staff plans to provide radios for Public Works staff and continue to enhance existing facilities. It is also looking to create an app to better communicate with residents.

“I think we did a great job and key to the results we achieved was having contracts in place with debris clean-up companies and making sure they were top-notch companies that had the resources to do the job,” Mayor Gary Bruhn said. 



In the days leading up to the storm, Winter Garden was among many local municipalities that provided sand bags for its residents. But the city also encourages its residents year round to prepare for disasters by making a kit, sticking to a plan and staying informed.

“Emergencies or disasters can strike at anytime with little warning and may force you to decide to evacuate your current location or stay where you are,” Winter Garden Fire Rescue Department wrote in its emergency preparedness flyer. “It is important to consider what an emergency or disaster could mean for you and your family, as everyone’s needs and abilities are different.”

Winter Garden Fire Rescue recommends all citizens who use a cellphone as a primary contact register their number in the CodeRED registry located on the Winter Garden Police Department’s website. This matches your cellphone to your home address, making it easy for emergency dispatchers to contact you with information in case of an emergency.



When Winter Park city commissioners met on Monday, Dec. 11, one of the items of discussion was an After Action Report on Irma — essentially a summary of what worked, what didn’t, and what will change next time a storm threatens the area.

Winter Park Fire/Rescue Department Chief Jim White brought to the commission a series of recommendations for the city to consider. Among these were looking into establishing a shelter in Winter Park.

He also said that the city’s technology has advanced significantly since 2004. Winter Park used an application to log details regarding damage location and costs, and White suggested providing more training with GIS tracking would be helpful for next time.

City Manager Randy Knight said that while the city developed the ability to use its automated meter reading system to pinpoint power outages in the days following Irma, it will have that up and running before the next storm hits.

The city will look to continue to improve all of the facets of emergency management and help residents to prepare even better for the next storm. Overall, White said, he thinks staff did as good a job as they could possibly do under the circumstances.

“I think we need to do more educating up front, and this is a good time to do that since it’s fresh on peoples’ minds — we’re not 10 years post storm,” he told commissioners.


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