Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Martin, St. Lucie prep as if storm will hit again

Source: Palm Beach Post

The counties say the Treasure Coast will be better prepared this season.

The very thought that makes residents shudder is the premise Martin and St. Lucie county officials are working from this hurricane season:

The Treasure Coast will get battered again.

After one heck of a run-in last year — when Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne struck the Treasure Coast during a relentless three-week stretch of September — government officials are planning as if another storm is on the way.

With the 2005 season officially kicking off Wednesday, the counties are planning to distribute relief supplies more quickly than last year, beef up their communications systems and have more sites for hurricane debris removal.

The lessons learned didn't come easily, but officials in both counties agree they are better equipped to handle a tropical storm having lived through last year's double-dose.

"As painful as it may have been, obviously everyone is experienced now at one of these events," interim Martin County Administrator Dan Hudson said.

In many respects, the counties are more ready than ever to handle what Mother Nature might dole out.

"I guess you'd call us battle-tested," Martin County Commission Chairman Lee Weberman said.

If another hurricane strikes the region this season, local officials expect to have more luck communicating with the public — and with one another.

Martin and St. Lucie government workers learned last year that they can't depend on Nextel or other cellphone companies during and after a hurricane.

St. Lucie spent more than $100,000 to upgrade to 800-megahertz radios for this hurricane season. The county bought 70 of the radios — commonly used by public safety agencies — to distribute to county employees.

"The 800-megahertz radios worked last time," St. Lucie County Administrator Doug Anderson said, adding that emergency generators at tower sites kept the radios working.

Cellphone towers, like homes and businesses, rely on electric power to operate. When the power goes off, it affects service, Nextel spokeswoman Michele Pinnau said.

Nextel has purchased more generators to use as backup when the power fails, and it's building more towers after last year's experience, Pinnau said.

In Martin County, the biggest frustration was not with internal communication but with getting information to residents. Because the county is sandwiched between more populous Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties, TV stations were slow to cover Martin during and after the first storm, Hurricane Frances, Hudson said.

The county's main radio partner, WSTU, lost its signal during Frances, the slow-moving Labor Day weekend storm, leaving many residents without a source of information.

"During the first storm, everybody was just terribly frustrated because they didn't know what was going on in Martin County," Hudson said.

So when Jeanne struck, the county hired the Stuart public relations firm McNicholas & Associates to lure TV crews to the county's Emergency Operations Center, home base for the county's hurricane response. The county paid the firm's owner, Tom McNicholas, $24,000 for 160 hours of work he put in to get the county covered by TV stations and other media.

This year, the county plans to have a contract with McNicholas & Associates or a similar firm in-hand ahead of time, Hudson said.

The county also is working with WQCS-FM 88.9 to get hourly Martin County updates on air after a disaster.

Preparing shelters

Last season, shelters in both counties suffered major damage during Hurricane Frances.

The driving wind tore apart the roofs at Pinewood Elementary School south of Stuart and the St. Lucie County Civic Center, the special-needs shelter in Fort Pierce.

With the civic center out of commission when Jeanne approached, St. Lucie special-needs residents — most of whom have medical problems — were bused to the state's A.G. Holley Hospital in Lantana.

This year, Fort Pierce's special-needs shelter has been moved from the civic center to Dan McCarty Middle School, a short distance to the east.

The St. Lucie County School Board and St. Lucie County will share the costs of new locks, a generator and other improvements to prepare Dan McCarty for use as a shelter.

In Port St. Lucie, people with medical problems will seek shelter at Port St. Lucie's Community Center as they did last year, while Challenger School, south of Stuart, will house those from Martin County.

Though Pinewood Elementary got a new roof, it won't be used as a Martin County hurricane shelter this year. Instead, the newly completed Jensen Beach High School will be added to the list.

The high school will provide about 3,500 spaces, giving Martin County far more shelter space than last season, American Red Cross officials reported.

The county's nine shelters will be able to accommodate about 12,250 people, said Mary Sawyer, executive director of the Red Cross' Martin County chapter.

But more shelters mean more volunteers. About 200 volunteers have enlisted with the Martin Red Cross, but Sawyer expects to need about 450 to man the shelters.

"We're going to have to recruit many more people," she said.

St. Lucie County had enough shelter space for 6,500 people last year — not including the two special-needs shelters — and that number will remain the same.

Sawyer said the Red Cross has arranged to purchase more food from its wholesale suppliers this year, rather than relying on the Martin school district's limited supply.

Though food didn't run out last year, it got close when Hurricane Frances hovered over the region for about three days.

"We did find that we were fixing to run out of food if it didn't hurry up and come on," Sawyer said.

Speeding up distribution

Recalling the long lines that stretched from some ice, water and food distribution sites after last year's hurricanes, both counties are hoping to speed distribution.

"We're trying to be sure we have enough people, fork lifts and security at each site," said St. Lucie County Public Safety Director Jack Southard.

In Martin County, officials are thinking about predetermining a distribution site in Palm City to complement those in Jensen Beach and the south county.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Red Cross and other relief agencies have supplies stockpiled in several places so they can deliver them quickly to stricken areas.

St. Lucie Administrator Anderson also has stockpiled meals-ready-to-eat, water, insect repellent and other supplies in the St. Lucie County Civic Center since damage prevents it from being used for other purposes.

The availability of fuel for hurricane responders also is a priority in both counties. Several agencies ran short of diesel for generators and other equipment, as tankers were unable to get to the Treasure Coast before Hurricane Frances struck. Anderson was on television pleading for fuel, drawing at least one 2,500-gallon donation.

This year, "we're reminding everybody to keep their storage tanks topped off," Southard said.

St. Lucie County also has purchased 18 new generators — including three large ones for the fairgrounds, which last year served as a staging area for the National Guard and other out-of-town agencies.

The 15 smaller ones will be used to power traffic lights, drainage pumps and other equipment if Florida Power & Light Co. can't supply service. Those are added to 55 generators the county had last year.

Martin County officials are considering another debris site to complement the 100 acres used last year at the Allapattah Ranch west of Palm City.

"The problem with Allapattah is it's just so far out of town," Hudson said.

Another site in the south county would allow haulers to make more trips in a shorter amount of time, he said.

In St. Lucie, debris was stockpiled last year at St. Lucie County International Airport and other sites, then chipped and hauled to the landfill.

"We're looking at the possibility of hauling it straight to the landfill area for processing," Anderson said.

He hasn't reached agreement with debris haulers yet, but is working on it.

"Last year I negotiated a contract over the phone at 10:30 p.m.," Anderson said. "I kept telling them their price was too high, and they came down."

Enforcing the law sensibly

Martin and St. Lucie law enforcement officials also say they're ready for any hurricanes this season.

Many people complained last year about overzealous enforcement of curfews in Port St. Lucie, where Martin Memorial Medical Center nurses were stopped in blockades at the city limits and barred from returning home.

"We're asking everybody to use a little common sense this year," Southard said.

Curfew enforcement went more smoothly in Martin County, though some residents were angry when sheriff's deputies blocked them from crossing over the Jensen Beach and Stuart causeways to return to their Hutchinson Island homes.

But it was the state Department of Transportation, not the Martin County Sheriff's Office, that decided the bridges were unsafe to cross after Hurricane Jeanne, sheriff's office spokeswoman Jenell Atlas said.

The same thing would happen if the state DOT made that call this year.

"That was a source of frustration," Atlas said. "And we sympathize with people. They wanted to go see their house."

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