WEST PALM BEACH — It wasn’t exactly a breeze. But City Administrator Jeff Green and Fire-Rescue Assistant Chief Diana Matty said the city’s new storm response procedures stood the test of Hurricane Matthew.
“This was really our first chance to have a real-world drill, to run our whole EOC system and see how it shook out. It went really well,” Green said. Those things that didn’t work well didn’t have an effect on the community but will be looked at to see how the city can correct them, he said.
Matty got promoted to oversee emergency operations in the summer of 2015 and immediately met with Green. One of his priorities was to get the city up to speed with FEMA’s National Incident Management System (NIMS), which spells out municipalities’ responsibilities as far as training and reporting.
The city is required to follow those procedures if it’s to be reimbursed for storm damage, Green said.
Since then city staffers have spent thousands of man hours taking classes, coordinated by the city, including classroom work and on-line instruction. Most recently, staffers attended disaster assessment training, where they learn how to assess damage, and whether the damage qualifies for reimbursement, and whether it should be categorized as “major,” “minor” or “affected,” the different levels, and how to coordinate a response to that damage through the Emergency Operations Center.
That training is coming into use now, as West Palm Beach – and other cities – submit assessment amounts to the county, since it’s the county that interfaces with FEMA.
To be sure, West Palm Beach has had emergency plans for years, but Matty said her time has been dedicated to getting city staff more trained in the past.
The city’s overall emergency plan as well as individual departments’ plans have been sharpened, she and Green said. Logistics people, damage assessment people, the many city departments, department heads and assistant department heads work together in a more coordinated way now. At the EOC, virtually every city department is represented, with high level staffers manning computer terminals, communicating with their staffs, and conferencing with county officials for storm updates.
“It’s all about communication,” Green said. “Having all the information at our disposal so we can make good decisions. That’s what Diana has done: created a structure the way NIMS is set up…. This was our first real chance to see that in operation.”
The city’s new Open Sky radio system worked well and had no downtime during Hurricane Matthew, he added.
Not everything went perfectly, the city administrator said. But the structure and procedures worked well, he said. “For this to work, you have to have the right people in the right positions. During a storm you have to make a lot of decisions on the fly and all the decisions can’t wait to go through every single level of our structure.
“So we had our sanitation people making decisions about sanitation. We had our police chief and our fire chief making decisions about deployment of police and fire staff. We were all involved in those decisions but a lot of those decisions were made at that level. I was happy to see people making those decisions did a good job in that role. That’s the biggest thing I was happy about.”
Negatives? “A lot of minor things,” Green said. They’ve made a list of problems are addressing them one-by-one.
For example: The only wind speed monitor was located at the EOC. It would have helped to have one at all fire and police stations, to have a better sense of conditions throughout the city, from the waterfront to the western reaches. “We’re going to fix that,” Green said.
Another problem, maybe not so minor: fuel deliveries to the city fleet. The city had contracts in place to make sure gas would be delivered for its police, fire, sanitation and other vehicles. But the contractors didn’t deliver, he said.
“We expected a delivery Monday and the day before the storm and we didn’t get them…. The contractors were supposed to deliver and they didn’t.” That’s not unusual during a storm but the city is considering solutions, whether having another backup or more fuel tanks.
Inside the EOC one thing that made communications challenging is that staffers relied upon individual, small computer screens, Matty said. That made it hard for storm managers to get an overall idea of where city responders, resources and incidents are. The solution will likely be to install a large, non-electronic, erasable incident map, she said.
The city also needs to collect contact numbers for nursing homes, so that city staffers can better respond to the city’s most vulnerable residents, particularly if generators go down.
A lot of calls came into the city’s non-emergency hotline, 561-822-2222, about people needing help putting up storm shutters on their homes. The city’s housing services director, Armando Fana, is being tasked with coming up with a way to help in those cases, possibly by having the city coordinate a force of volunteers.
At the same time, neighbors need to help neighbors rather than just rely upon the city, Green said. And a lot of that did happen. “I heard so many good stories. That’s the kind of thing I really like hearing. The community really needs to help itself.”
Matthew put the two-year-old EOC, in a fire station on Congress Avenue just south of Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard and the Palm Beach Outlets, through its first real test, other than Tropical Storm Erika’s near-miss in August 2015. The center worked well as a communications center, and housed eight officials the first night of Matthew, 14 the next night, Matty said. That included Green, Mayor Muoio and others top administrators.
Other than downed tree limbs, the city escaped serious damage, as the hurricane eased away at the last minute. The only incident of any kind in West Palm Beach was a living room fire caused by a candle, in a home not far from the EOC.
The public needs to know a few things about hurricanes, the assistant fire chief said.
For one, don’t put tree trimmings and other debris out on the street just before a storm, she said. The city won’t be able to remove it in time.
For another, hurricane shutters need to come down immediately after the storm passes. Otherwise, if there is a fire, firefighters have a hard time getting in and residents will have a hard time escaping.
Residents also should sign up with the city’s “Reverse 9-1-1” system, which is called “Code Red.” It’s a way the city puts out important emergency information and relays it to residents’ through phone messages and internet texts. Sign up for it by going to codered.com on your computer or phone.
The final bit of advice is to take storms and storm preparation seriously, Green said. “If they don’t take it seriously, people can die.”