Friday, January 06, 2006

How Lauderhill is Responding to Hurricanes

On October 24, 2005, our community was visited by the worse hurricane ever to hit this area, Wilma. The devastation caused exceeded Hurricane Andrew, and affected all of Broward County. A State of Emergency was declared, and a county-wide curfew was put into place. Over 95% of the electricity in Broward was out, and 98% of the water and sewer systems failed. Three-quarters of the traffic lights throughout the county were down, and it was clear that the public was not prepared for such an event.

Cities are the first responders in such emergencies, and are not supposed to be the only responders. But when other governmental agencies failed to respond timely, it fell to local governments to do what they could in their limited capacity. Many lessons were learned, the greatest lesson for cities were that in these times, the only ones that you can rely upon is yourself. If someone else comes along to help, great, but don't hold your breath. Therefore, where deficiencies have been found, cities are now working on backup plans to make sure that in the future they will be better prepared, without the need to solely rely on other governments to step in with help.

However, before figuring out where we can substitute the missing support expected from higher governments, we must look at what we are supposed to handle, and how well we handled it. As first responders, a city's responsibility is to (along with Lauderhill's response):

1) Restore and maintain as needed, water and sewer (our system was the only one that continued to work throughout the emergency. No boil water orders or sewer backup occurred in the city served by the city. Repairs were immediately addressed and fixed before causing system failures. There was a breakdown in the newly annexed area which uses Broward County Water and Sewer. The city is trying to resolve this with the county);
2) Clear roads of debris (began within 24 hours)
3) Respond to police and fire/paramedic calls (continual. In fact we had 110 calls for fire/EMS service in a 12 hour period. The previous record was 61. In a 24 hour period, we had over 600 calls for police and fire/EMS);
4) Set up traffic controls as needed (set up within 24 hours at critical intersections);
5) For the protection of the public, establish a curfew (this was implemented immediately, and Lauderhill was the last city to fully lift their curfew. This soft curfew served to not only significantly reduce injury and damage, it also gave our public safety officers more time to deal with reported emergencies);
6) Evaluate damage to the city and report to other governmental agencies (began within 24 hours);
7) Determine unsafe structures, close as necessary, and coordinate with the county/state/red cross for the residents needs (this is where we had significant problems). (Began with 24 hours);
8) Help coordinate disaster relief stations with the county, state, and FEMA (continuously as permitted by them);
9) Institute repairs to city structures and facilities (began within 24 hours and continues);
10) Arrange for hurricane debris removal as guided by FEMA (debris pickup began with 1 week and we conducted 2 pickups); and
11) Set up emergency permitting station to allow residents and businesses to begin expedited repairs (set up within 1 week at an outdoor tent since we lost City Hall).

We did find that there were several areas that we could improve upon, which include areas that are not necessarily our responsibility, and we are working on those now:

1) Prior to Hurricane Wilma, the Mayor had already written and passed restrictions on the planting of Ficus and Black Olive Trees in the future. Other restrictions on landscaping may also be considered;
2) Gas Stations and ACLF's had power losses, limiting the ability to obtain gas to the general public, and putting seniors lives in danger. We are in the process of changing our laws to require all gas stations and ACLF's to have emergency power back up systems;
3) Fortunately, while some cities did not have sufficient emergency supplies, Lauderhill did prepare. We had water, food, tarps, etc. to use, but we did run short on some supplies due to the unanticipated delays in re-stocking from other governments. Therefore, we established alternate suppliers to supplement our needs, and advised other cities of the availability. We are also working on expanding our ability to stockpile additional supplies;
4) While Lauderhill did have generators to keep our systems running, we need to obtain more to cover weaknesses in the system;
5) Since traffic lights went down, we put limitations on traffic flow, and used our officers to direct traffic at major intersections. We did secure some state officers to assist in this matter. To relieve our officers of this duty, we are in the process of obtaining emergency portable traffic lights. Recently the Mayor found a vendor who has these products for sale/lease;
6) Lauderhill's City Hall suffered major damage. This is a weakness in our infrastructure. The City and Commission are reviewing answers to avoid this problem in the future (see prior article on this subject);
7) Throughout Lauderhill, electricity was lost. Steps are being considered to try and avoid this problem in the future. Inspection of poles, requiring electric lines to be buried or at least coated, are some of the considerations. However, State Legislation will be required to imposed many of these changes;
8) At a recent Town Hall Meeting of State Legislators, the Mayor pointed out that while FEMA may reimburse a majority of hurricane expenses, it will be some time before that occurs. In the meantime, cities must either use their surplus, and to the extent they have insufficient surpluses, they must borrow the money. Either way, cities have a loss of revenue, while the State of Florida has a windfall of sales tax revenue. It was pointed out that Florida could provide interest free loans to cities to cover cities using this windfall, until reimbursed by FEMA. Reimbursement usually takes up to a year after the disaster. A bill was filed in the Legislature by State Representative Greenstein, though there is no reported action on the bill
9) While the city does have fuel storage tanks, it became clear that we need to have the capacity to store more fuel. Therefore, larger and more fuel tanks are being obtained;
10) To keep city building operating, we are looking at retrofitting them with electrical alternative quick connects for portable generators;
11) A breakdown in the county's dispatch and communication system was a significant problem, which needs to be corrected. During and after the storm, Lauderhill found it necessary to do its own dispatch, and communication systems throughout the county that were still operating, were overloaded. This issue was handled by the city during the storm, and a better, more permanent answer countywide, needs to be implemented;
12) Though Lauderhill did an extraordinary job of trying to get out public information, we found that Broward County led the information delivery to the media. The problem was that much of this information was either incomplete or outright incorrect. This is a county wide problem which we are working to rectify for the next emergency;
13) There was a breakdown by the Red Cross, county, state and FEMA, as to the PODS (Points of Distribution Stations). Incorrect information was given to the city and its residents about location, time of operations and supplies to be available. Much of the promised materials never arrived. Staffing of the PODS, beyond city employees and local volunteers, were also an issue. These are external issues we are working to resolve;
15) Fortunately, following Wilma, the weather was much cooler than normal. If this had been August, and the temperature had been in the 90's, without electricity, we would have faced a much deeper crisis. To address this, we are looking at alternatives to address this problem. We are also looking to the Public to see if they may be able to prepare for this problem on their own, if these conditions should occur;
16) We noticed that many did not take proper precautions before the storm, and therefore excessive damage and injuries occurred. It appeared that after so many close calls, the public may have become complacent, and this is one of the greatest problems we endured. It is now realized by the Public, that they need to improve their homes, put up shutters, and have sufficient supplies to survive for at least 72 hours. We believe that our experience has taught us to prepare better, and the city plans to try and emphasis this need to a greater extent to prepare in the future.

As you can see, while we may have done well as a city, there is much more we can do in the future. The next time we plan to be better prepared, and to assist our residents and businesses to do likewise.

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