Faster Reimbursements, Shelters, Power Restoration: South Florida Prepares For Hurricane Season

May 30, 2019

Weather officials have been able to reduce forecasting errors for a hurricane's track, including its "cone of uncertainty," in the last 20 years. But more research is needed to better predict how intense a storm will be.

That's according to National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham, who spoke on a panel Thursday at the Broward County Emergency Operations Center in Plantation. 

"We still have work with the intensity," Graham said. "It's so important to be able to conduct that research."

Graham was reporting to South Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz ahead of the official start of hurricane season on Saturday, June 1. U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala also joined the briefing this year.

THE UPCOMING STORM SEASON

Graham stressed that a five-day - or even a seven-day - plan to prepare for a storm is outdated. He said the fast growth of last year's Hurricane Michael before it hit the Panhandle should push emergency officials in South Florida to move to a three-day plan instead.

"Let's break our plans and stress our plans," Graham said. "Every single year we have to prepare as if we're going to be hit...It's not just a bumper sticker, it only takes one hurricane to ruin your day."

Read More: Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham: 'Know Your Risks'

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, has predicted this year’s season will be “near normal.” However, that range still predicts between nine and 15 named storms, two to four of which could develop into major hurricanes.

The difference from last year's hurricane season is that the climate pattern El Niño is active now. It normally suppresses hurricane activity in the Atlantic but its winds also add uncertainty to weather predictions. 

STATE CHANGES

While last year's briefings to Wasserman Schultz focused specifically on lessons learned from Hurricane Irma, this year's reports focused on improving action plans to make things run more smoothly at the state, county and city levels. That includes, for example, speeding up the process to reimburse people for personal damages after a storm.

"It had been a very frustrating process," Wasserman Schultz said about reimbursing people for past hurricanes.

The first checks for relief after Hurricane Irma weren't mailed until eight months after the storm had passed. The Florida Division of Emergency Management says it's since made improvements. 

The division, which did not participate in the annual congressional briefing under former governor Rick Scott, has implemented new programs and protocols to change the reimbursement process. As a result, it's now able to expedite grants for large disaster projects ahead of time, like for debris removal costs. (A similar program called Immediate Needs Funding was used under former governor Charlie Crist.) 

Expediting grants for large projects - along with changing how funding agreements are handled for cities and counties - will get reimbursement money to local governments faster, according to the division's Bureau Chief of Recovery, Amanda Campen. 

Campen attended the briefing in place of Jared Moskowitz, Florida's new director of Emergency Management and former state representative for Broward County. He was appointed by Governor Ron DeSantis to the state's top emergency role in January this year. 

BROWARD COUNTY

It's not just state agencies that have been making changes to hurricane response.

Since Hurricane Irma, Broward County's Emergency Management Division has adopted a new approach for shelters. 

The county used to release information about shelter locations in tiers, but now all 33 addresses (three of them pet shelters) are published at once ahead of the season. 

"You don't have to wait for it," said Tracy Jackson, Broward's director of regional public safety and emergency services. 

The county does not publish ahead of a storm which shelters will be open first, or which shelters will be designated as specials needs shelters. People who need to go to a special needs shelter during a storm are encouraged to pre-register by calling (954) 831-3902 or registering online.

Unlike Miami-Dade County, Broward County has not unveiled a hurricane smartphone app for residents to download, and it does not have 'help' door hangers to mail to residents to use after a storm. But it may in the future. 

"I think it's a great idea," Jackson said. "We obviously want to vet that with our disaster response people who are going to be out there on the ground to make sure that's it's actually something they're going to find useable, and works in the system that's already been established and trained and tested within Broward."

POWER RESTORATION

One thing that has not changed with hurricane preparation: nursing homes and assisted-living facilities are still not on FPL's priority list for restoration of power after a storm hits.  However, they are on Broward County's priority list that officials are trying to have FPL implement.  

"There's been active, frequent conversations with FPL," Jackson said. "We (Broward County) want the most vulnerable people to be able to have access to power, obviously." 

After Hurricane Irma in 2017, a dozen people died at a Hollywood nursing home due to complications from heat and prolonged power loss. Since then the legislature passed a law requiring assisted-living facilities and nursing homes to have backup generators, but there are still issues with facilities taking too long to comply with the law. 

FPL insists its practices will remain the same: restore power to the largest amount of people first, by restoring main roads before restoring power on side roads or in neighborhoods, which have more trees but also house some elderly facilities.

Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz asked for future meetings with Broward County officials and FPL to clarify the priority list for power restoration after a storm hits. 

"I'm going to be following up," she said. "Continuing to iron out the fairly significant kinks that exist in that prioritization of power restoration for our vulnerable population is something we need to continue to work on."