David Halstead: The life-sustaining phase of recovery from Hurricane Irma is underway -- getting power, food, water to affected areas
He says Florida emergency responders must push forward whatever resources needed, worry about whether it was more cost-effective after crisis is over
Editor’s Note: David Halstead is the former director of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
During the Apollo space program, as the spacecraft circled around the moon and went to the dark side of the Earth, ground control lost radio contact until it came back into sight. Hurricanes are much like that, in that all communications with the affected areas can be lost as the storm bears down. This loss of communication can last many hours and can bring the tension in the emergency operations center to an all-time high.
You see, a lesson we learned during Hurricane Andrew in 1992 is that no news is not necessarily good news for the areas hit. As we are seeing from our early contacts in the lower Keys after Hurricane Irma, this lesson remains true.
Now we’re facing the life-sustaining phase of recovery.
Search and rescue crews, law enforcement responders and federal disaster medical assistance teams are being moved into the impacted areas, as are staged resources, such as food and water, from the state logistics warehouse in Orlando. These resources are first going to the most critically affected communities or to counties that are requesting them. This means southeast Florida, including the Keys, and southwest Florida in the Naples and Marco Island areas.
What these crews and responders are discovering is, in large part, that the hurricane took a substantial toll on buildings in the Keys and on the entire state’s electric grid. The Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates that 25% of houses on the archipelago are destroyed. About 65% are damaged, according to FEMA’s initial figures.
Nearly 4 million customers in Florida remain without electricity. Power poles are down, and in many cases transmission and distribution systems are damaged to the point where repair is not an option; replacing and rebuilding them are the only answers. Erecting new poles, restringing electrical lines, testing and retesting, reconnecting buildings to the grid – all of this will take time, a lot of it.
To that end, rapid-response teams initiated by the power companies has been sending repair crews, power poles and electrical cable. The hard truth is many will wait many weeks before they have what we all take for granted: air conditioning and lights.
These early responders, and other teams such as the National Guard, Red Cross, cable companies, and even national pharmaceutical companies, are on the roads and in some instances already in the affected communities, delivering emergency supplies or working seamlessly with their local counterparts.
In fact, immediately after the winds subsided and roads were open, convoys of these responders were moving in; making “a hole” to travel through and make it wide is the only direction needed for the department of transportation crews and their contractors, as well as the National Guard, to get teams into the worst-struck areas.
At the same time, citizens, naturally, want to return to the area and see for themselves the damages that their homes have sustained. First, before that can be allowed, law enforcement and elected officials will require the area to be safe enough for them to return.
Secondly they’ll need proof that they live in the area, work in the area or have some requirement to be able to return to the impacted portions of the city or county. Finally, can they provide for themselves when they return or will their return cause even more strain on an areas limited resources such as food and water?
If an area is already relying on donated water, food and gasoline, each citizen returning should be prepared to be self-sufficient for several days upon their return. In some areas – such as in the Keys – residents who return are being required to boil their water before drinking, until sewage and water services are completely restored.
Survivors whose homes are damaged or without power may be able visit their homes, but must remain in shelters until the structure is able to receive power. In most cases, the shelters are schools, so without power the schools cannot reopen, which means the parents who work don’t have the ability to drop children at school or day-care centers.
Meanwhile, law enforcement, fire services and EMS crews continue to respond based on the conditions of the roadways, the level of damage – major, minor, and, in some cases, complete destruction. All of this is fed back into the emergency operations center and analyzed by emergency management officials for further actions and analysis.
The goal here is first, to save lives, help the injured and provide security for the entire area of operation. And second, to establish communication with the county and state emergency operations center to provide real-time data to help decision-makers further assess what types of immediate lifesaving assistance is needed.
While the state of Florida relies on this data to map its future response efforts, one picture to clearly paint is that Florida does not, in this kind of urgent, on-the-ground response, sit back and wait for lengthy reports analyzing the damages before it sends its immediate assistance.
Instead, the state gathers damage assessments during response into the areas hardest hit by the storm. What is not required in those areas will be sent to the next hardest-hit area, and so on until no further lifesaving aid is needed.
At the end of the event, the state will make a financial analysis of the response. Did pushing expensive resources forward while the jurisdiction is emerging from the dark side of the moon represent the best alternative for the state response? Maybe not. Will it be scrutinized by the cost-saving experts? Yes, it will.
But the saying that has carried many of us through the numbers of hurricanes we handled was simple: “It is better to ask for forgiveness than it is permission.”