As you drive along I-75 crossing Florida’s Charlotte County on Florida’s west coast, every overpass rises to the same view: hundreds of homes, their roofs decorated with bright blue tarpaulins to keep the weather out, while homeowners await overburdened roofing companies to repair them.
The scene is much the same along every mile of interstate roadway that runs through the 67 counties on the Florida peninsula, save Broward and Miami-Dade counties along the extreme southeastern edge of the state’s 1,197-mile coastline. The damaged roofs are a testimony to the Furious Four—hurricanes Charlie, Ivan, Frances and Jeanne—that ripped through the Sunshine State during late August and all of September 2004.
Meanwhile, the ubiquitous blue tarps have become something of a signature for the Department of Homeland Security(DHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA) and its role in emergency response. A Florida Department of Community Affairs (DCA) spokesman says a total of 612,145 blue tarps were ordered by the state under a program managed by the Army Corps of Engineers. Although there is no official estimate yet of how many were used, unofficial estimates run in the hundreds of thousands.
A really big show
Small wonder. The overlapping events—Tropical Storm Bonnie and Hurricane Charley (Aug. 11-30), Hurricane Frances (Sept. 3), Hurricane Ivan (Sept. 16); and Hurricane Jeanne (Sept. 24)—presented the biggest test on record for any state’s emergency-response mechanisms since the ascendance of homeland security concerns after the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
Local media estimate that one in five of Florida’s 17 million-plus full-time residents was affected in some way by all that dangerous late summer/early fall weather. The number would have been much higher had the storms come in November, when the population begins to swell to more than 74 million with tourists and out-of-state “snowbirds” who live there part-time.
Those estimates suggest that the fourth most populous state in the nation saw at least 3 million to 4 million people in disaster mode, many with flooded and damaged premises, with roofs ripped up or even their entire homes blown away. First responders coordinated by the two state agencies with oversight responsibility—the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) and the DCA’s Division of Emergency Management (DEM)—also had to assist people who were without food, power or water, who had suffered personal injuries and whose lives had been uprooted.
A few citizens groused publicly in the media about the delivery of some essential services, particularly power from Florida Power & Light. The power company has since calmed concerns with Herculean efforts to re-string hundreds of thousands of miles of cable—some of it more than once because the multiple events at least twice affected the same locations—and with aggressive and believable public relations efforts.
FEMA seems to have needed no such image repair. By and large, there have been few public complaints about FEMA during the recovery phase. From the top on down, Florida domestic security officials give FEMA high marks for performance.
“The Federal government’s response has been magnificent,” said Gov. Jeb Bush at an Oct. 16 presidential political rally. (See sidebar for views of some Florida citizens.)
Those charged directly with implementing Florida’s domestic security plan, meanwhile, were particularly happy with the ease and effectiveness of working with FEMA representatives in a centralized emergency-management response to the multiple events. It likewise proved to be a formidable test of the state’s domestic security infrastructure and planning.
“This was a very good test in terms of how to delegate resources,” observed a Florida DCA spokesman who did not provide his name. “And it served to certify our regional domestic security plan,” developed over the past three years. He also called it a “very dynamic process,” with multiple logistical staging areas that challenged professionals to think out of box.
“Nature was cutting us off from initial response,” he noted. “We had to take care of the needs of the victim and then the needs of the responders in one area, move onto the next—and then go back to number one while moving to another.” Since Florida bases its domestic-security plan on a multi-hazard or all-hazard approach, the state’s 17 emergency-response functions, from law enforcement to the health department, were brought into play in this real-time, real-life exercise.
It’s all the same
“There’s little difference between hurricanes and terrorist attacks when it comes to disaster recovery,” said David Halstead, chief of domestic preparedness for FDLE. Halstead, a retired fire chief, added:“The recent events enabled all the players—federal, state, county, local, and volunteer agencies and organizations—to work through significant barriers and still communicate effectively with one another.”
“Any time you can interact with 250 in an emergency operations center and know most of them by their first name, that adds value, period,” observed Mike McHargue, director of investigations and forensic science programs and homeland security advisor to the commissioner of FDLE. “And we’re talking policy level people at the federal, state and all the other areas. It’s seamless.”
Mark Zadra, chief of investigations for FDLE’s Office of Statewide Intelligence, recalled a comment made by William Whitson, city manager for Milton, Fla. Whitson’s remark, made at regional domestic task-force meeting during the recovery operations, seemed to perfectly sum up the cooperative spirit that marked the combined efforts.
“For the first time in my public service career,” said Whitson, “I saw a federal generator, secured by the state, delivered by a county truck and offloaded by a city forklift that was operated by a volunteer firefighter.”
The terror potential
Recovery from terrorist attacks, particularly those involving weapons of mass destruction, would present broad catastrophic events similar to hurricanes, said Zadra. But there would be additional concerns since a crime is involved, he explained, adding that the recent string of hurricanes also presented some heightened concern about potential terrorist activities. “We are always vulnerable and try to decrease the threat,” Zadra said.
Florida’s unique domestic landscape provides lots of potential terrorist targets, including three nuclear power plants, 12 stadiums, 20 major theme parks, 14 major seaports, 19 commercial and international airports, numerous major financial institutions, 298 general aviation airfields, 21 military bases, 44,000 commercial farms, 2,900 miles of rail and millions of miles of public roadways.
“It’s very intense,” Zadra said. “We make the DHS critical sector list in almost every area, except we don’t have a lot of tunnels. We studied that, and the guidance we received from the DHS concerning what terrorism opportunities hurricanes could present.” Those concerns generally included people being away from home, crowded roadways with people heading for safety and shelter, and the loss of electricity and communications capabilities.
The fact that 13 of the 19 Sept. 11 attackers had lived in, transited through or trained within Florida’s borders during the months and years prior to the massacres adds special impetus to the concerns.
“That’s really scary,” said Halstead. “We’ve put an emphasis on prevention, to work more closely with federal and local partners to make sure something like that doesn’t happen again.”
Mopping up and moving forward
The situation in Florida has moved from response to recovery mode, and part of the process is a detailed, ongoing review of the state’s plans and performance, as well as its financial effectiveness. Since 1999, federal and state funding for Florida’s domestic security operations has totaled about $650 million, estimated FDLE’s Halstead, with Florida’s share totaling less than $50 million.
“Lots of stuff has been occurring in a blender,” said the DCA spokesman. “We’re still crunching numbers on the costs, making sure we’ve separated them out properly. Accountability does not go out the window, despite the fact that we have been working out of four different databases for the four different events, each with federal, state, county and local expenditures.”
The DCA is also looking ahead, hoping to better manage the public’s expectations regarding response mechanisms, particularly through education. The FDLE, meanwhile, is already moving ahead with internal education plans.
Zadra says his office is rescheduling the second in a series of cross-training classes for law enforcementthat were canceled during the hurricane season. The training, done in conjunction with DHS Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), has already empowered 35 officers with specific domestic-security responsibilities to make arrests on immigration-related charges.
The apparent success of the cooperative approach among all the players during the messy hurricane season has Florida officials looking ahead to improving those relationships even more in the future. HST
Richard D. R. Hoffmann is a veteran writer and editor with particular expertise in government, education, information technology and business journalism. He is also author of the book Success in the Business Jungle (Dorrance, 1998), among other non-fiction books. He is principal of HISeditorial, an editorial services firm. He can be contacted at [email protected]
Assessing the assessors
Those Florida citizens who needed FEMA’s help after the four hurricanes during the messy month of September generally have presented positive reports in the media about the government agency’s response, with some reservations. A couple of spot interviews shore up that broad assessment.
Matthew Dietl, a 50-something draftsman for a large civil engineering firm in West Palm Beach, owns a trailer located in Jupiter, Fla., that was damaged by Frances and then by Jeanne. Dietl had to make a separate claim for each via an 800 number. The volunteer FEMA representative for Jeanne showed up first, within three days of his call.
“The FEMA telephone people were right on,” said Dietl. “It was encouraging to get a government person on the other end of the line that really knew what they were doing.”
Dietl characterizes the FEMA representative who showed up to assess the trailer damage from Hurricane Jeanne as “a home improvement kind of guy, not an accountant,” which made him more believable and qualified to Dietl. The rep explained what was covered and what was not and said that, if Dietl qualified, FEMA would pay.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” Dietl said, not only by the first FEMA representative but the second, as well, who came a week later to assess the damage caused by Frances. Dietl rated the FEMA telephone contacts and both representatives highly.
“The representatives were nines, and the phone people were sevens,” Dietl said. “Most phone calls I make I’d rate as threes.” A couple of weeks after his last contact with FEMA in early October, Dietl was waiting for his check.
Some people have already received their checks. MaryLou Johns, a housewife from an upscale neighborhood in Palm Beach Gardens, received a check for more than $800 to cover a generator purchased between the Frances and Jeanne events. Yet Johns, while impressed overall by the response, is less complimentary of some of FEMA’s procedures.
Johns described a bureaucratic run-around at the Palm Beach Gardens city complex where she went to make her claim. She was shuffled from one desk to another, and to a phone connected to FEMA headquarters, after sitting in rows of chairs lined up around the complex. She complained about the redundant process, in which everyone asked her for the same information, at least one recording it with pencil and paper.
“It took about 15 to 20 minutes to move three seats,” Johns remarked, again noting that there were three or four queues. “And through the whole process, no one told me whether I was eligible or not.” Her time-consuming and frustrating experience left Johns unhappy with the process. “I guess I would have given them higher marks if I’d just done it over the phone,” she admitted.
About 10 days after the next hurricane, Jeanne, roared through Palm Beach County, a FEMA representative called to make an appointment for the next day. Within a week of his visit, Johns received her check. The whole process took a little over a month.
“Iwas surprised that, with our income, we would get any help at all,” said Johns. “Normally I wouldn’t apply, but I’m paying a lot in taxes. These were extraordinary circumstances.”