Hendry County staff members presented a comprehensive, 21-page report about the county’s Hurricane Irma response during a special meeting that lasted almost two hours Monday evening at Clewiston City Hall, with representatives of all local elected bodies present.
County Administrator Charles Chapman presented the report, saying, “We’re not going to read you a bedtime story tonight, we’ll just get right down to the heart of the matter and talk about things that need to be addressed, and then we’ll turn it over to open discussion by the board and the other elected officials who are here.” He introduced Deputy County Administrator Jennifer Davis to go over the summary, which recounted internal meetings among officials and county staff “about what we did well, what we didn’t do well … The number one thing that we walked away with that we needed to improve upon was communications. We had communications breakdowns overall, internally, externally; some were things we might have been able to prevent, and some things were items that were out of our control.”
Ms. Davis mentioned specifically radio communications breakdowns. “We need to come up with a better system within our county with all our different agencies that we work with,” she said. “Along those lines, we have updated our plans with the state. We submitted a request in May and we just got the letter back this morning where they approved our plans to incorporate the City of Clewiston into the radio communications fund, to be able to share the funding source that we get at the county for that, and so we will start working on that plan moving forward so we’re all on the same system.”
The report shone a harsh light on shortcomings that officials found.
“We identified that logistics was not optimal, and we again had communications failures within the logistics of distribution sites and scheduling of items right after the storm and for our long-term recovery,” Ms. Davis continued. “We identified that our volunteer involvement needed to be stronger and we needed to be more organized, again because of the communications issues that we had.”
But it wasn’t all bad.
“We did identify, though, some positive items that we did very well at. We felt like we got our roadways cleared very quickly after the storm. We did have multiple (distribution) sites after the storm for the residents. We did have some supplies initially on hand that were distributed right away. Shelters were well-operated and opened quickly for the residents when that time came. One of the biggest long-term recovery issues that we had after the storm was, of course, the commencement of our debris removal. We know that was a big deal for everyone, and it did not get started as quickly as we would have liked.”
County Commissioner Karson Turner said he was in the City of Clewiston’s Emergency Operations Center most of the time during the storm. “In 2014, I asked for our board of county commissioners to engage in a forward-thinking conversation where we did an in-house forecast, a modeling that said, we take a direct hit from a Category 1 through 5, what does that look like, and how do we cue up our vendors to take the hurricane disaster relief fund money that we have and … mobilize?”
He and other officials complained that cleanup could have begun quicker but for specified procedures to get maximum reimbursement for recovery costs from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Mentioning a roundtable meeting he attended last week with U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, Commissioner Turner said, “We need to have the tool in the toolbox to be able to exercise said contracts (with local debris removal companies), and I thought that was the most productive conversation that we had the other day with Congressman Diaz-Balart, about trying to cue up that mechanism so that we can have a template that’s … legally looked over, it’s subjected to all the different issues, and now whenever X storm occurs, we’re able to mobilize. Because at the end of the day, even though we had a contract with AshBritt and/or we were going to initiate a contract with Crowder Gulf, it was our local guys that did the work.”
He thought curfews should have been enacted proactively before the storm rather than having to wait until after it had passed, because in Irma’s case “we had a big exodus from Hendry” and there were a lot of people on the roads, some of whom could have been looters.
Commissioner Darrell Harris, who said he was also in the EOC much of the time, thought supervision of volunteers needed to be improved, “because they want you to tell them what to do. Communication and supervision are two of the big things.” He also noted that “we need to pre-plan ahead of time,” plans need to be written down, stored for easy access “and you can’t just quit then; someone needs to keep up with everything per year because we probably won’t be here in 10-15-20 years except for Mr. Turner. He’s the only young one we’ve got, but all of us old people will be gone. So all that information’s got to be stored and kept up every year.”
Hendry Schools Superintendent Paul Puletti talked about how it went hosting hurricane shelters inside the schools, saying communications were a major problem for him and school district staff, although he concluded, “I thought we did well sheltering people.”
Clewiston City Commissioner Phillip Roland claimed city staff and local workers could have had the city cleaned up in a week rather than the six weeks it took. “We have got to do something better than what FEMA is doing with their contractors. I mean, we can make it happen. But we have got to have a way to clean up our city. All it takes is FEMA sending out a price, that you can’t go above this, and we can get the work done. That’s the only thing that really held us back was everybody saying, ‘You’re going to have to eat it,’” meaning the cost of cleanup if things were done outside present FEMA protocols. “And we couldn’t afford to eat it, is what it amounted to.”