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Preparedness Tested: City Staff Ready for Hurricane Season Response

Posted 8/17/2020 7:27:00 PM

Kimberly Norman

Palm Coast - Enter the dog days of summer. The afternoon thunderstorms are as predictable as the mercury rising.

Storms are part of life in Florida, and recently Isaias was the first system this season to pose a threat to the state's east coast and more specifically to Palm Coast. Like with any storm, city staff monitored conditions from the moment it spiraled onto the radar. Leading up to Isaias' imminence, there were daily briefings with local leaders and coordination of city resources.

All 500+ city employees are considered essential. And on top of the many hours worked to manage the ongoing situation with the coronavirus, staff then helped others prepare for a hurricane. City employee Jeremy Whitaker, an Equipment Operator 2 in Public Works, helped stock sand piles for residents to take home. In just the brief moments of interaction, he understood their appreciation. "It was hot and there were times where you are worn out, but you're just trying to help everybody get what they needed so they're prepared," Whitaker said. In all, public works crews handed out 4,000 sandbags in the three-day span. As a reminder for those who may not know, sandbags can be reused later this season if they are protected and out of the sun.

The fire department sent a high-water vehicle to be stationed in Flagler Beach in the event of storm surge in the neighboring coastal community. A special truck was also brought out in case there was storm debris. Crews also staffed an engine with three firefighters and four volunteers to help with calls. One of them was Palm Coast Volunteer Fire Department Captain John Frailey. He and the other volunteers surveyed Flagler Beach and the Hammock area that Sunday to make sure everything was ok. "Palm Coast VFD is that vital additional resource that is available to our citizens daily and in instances of extreme conditions such as pandemics and severe weather," Frailey said. 

At City Hall, the IT staff set up an emergency operations center, or EOC, in the city council workshop area in case it was needed, fully equipped with phone systems, computers, televisions and access to street cameras.

Just down the hall from the EOC, a few customer service representatives came in to manage the city's 24-hour call center. One of them was Haleigh Hand, who's worked for the city through many other storms. She and her team provided a reassuring voice to nearly 80 residents who called in needing information on topics like pep tanks, trees and garbage. "We all have families so we can all empathize. We all have homes here," Hand said. She added, "I'm happy to be part of a solution that's much bigger than myself." Reps also responded to nearly 200 resident concerns submitted through Palm Coast Connect.

Services through city amenities and trash collection were paused for the safety of workers. But as forecasts changed, other storm plans and checks were modified and scaled back.

With each storm that passes, emergency plans are continuously finessed and updated. This year, COVID-19 adds a new layer of preparation and protection. City Emergency Manager and Fire Capt. Tommy Ascone leads the team in emergency management by establishing worker safety protocols set by FEMA. This includes using face masks, temperature checks, and sanitization practices. This year the city is preparing for a first - a virtual EOC. In what's considered the central nervous system of storm operations, it will evolve from a gathering in the past of 15 to 20 people in one place, to around six, as more web-based work is implemented, keeping gatherings at a minimum. "We're considering all of our options this hurricane season," said Ascone. "In instances where we do not lose power, we are going to utilize a virtual EOC. When we do lose power, we're going to reduce the amount of people working in the EOC to include key personnel only."

On top of that, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is urging preparedness as the organization recently issued a news release pointing to what could be an "extremely active" season, saying 'This is one of the most active seasonal forecasts that NOAA has produced in its 22-year history of hurricane outlooks.'

This year, utility and public works crews have a new tool in what's called 'field service lightning' for sewer issues. It's a dispatch capability to send electronic work orders to crews. With the majority of utility lift stations having generators, if power goes out, a supervisor is immediately notified. This allows the team to have trucks ready to dispatch before residents even call in, offering a more proactive approach to responding to sewer issues.

Now is the time to be prepared if you haven't already started. Every year, new residents move to Palm Coast from other places and to help learn important storm readiness information, please visit the city emergency page