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The South Florida Roundup

South Florida Emergency Officials Turn To Drones, Mapping Data For 2019 Hurricane Season

A satellite image of Hurricane Irma.

Two years ago, it looked as if Hurricane Irma would make a direct hit to South Florida. Hundreds of thousands of people were ordered to leave their homes. Many did and found emergency shelters with no room and gridlocked traffic.

Even when storms come and go within a day, recouping costs for local governments can take months and years. Last month, Miami-Dade County learned it would be getting $119 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It’s money the county already spent cleaning up debris left over from the storm. (Add in state funds, and Dade County should get about $150 million.)

This year, forecasters are predicting a near-normal Atlantic hurricane season: they’re expecting up to 15 named storms – with at least two major hurricanes.


On the South Florida Roundup, host Tom Hudson spoke with South Florida’s emergency management bosses: Tracy Jackson of Broward County; Bill Johnson of Palm Beach County; Martin Senterfitt of Monroe County; and Frank Rollason of Miami-Dade County. They discussed what’s different this storm season and what to expect when a storm is in the forecast.

Here's an excerpt of that conversation:

WLRN: What’s new for this year’s hurricane season?

ROLLASON: We've put some door hangers with a red side or the green side. If they need help, they put the red side out. And we are implementing a drone program where we'll be able, from the fire department, get a drone team in there rather quickly. For those, we're talking about the hard hit areas.

With the streets being blocked and that type of thing, we get the drones in. They'd be able to run up [and] down the streets and assess how much damage, what we need from public works. They'll also be able to give us a, what we call "drop a pin," or G.P.S., if there are any red tags there, so we get a team in right away. 

How close does the drone have to be to the front door to be able to see it? 

ROLLASON: The drones we have can zoom in. The operator is able to skirt down a street and pick up the colors. If they see a red, they can come in home right in on it and then drop a pin right there, tells us the location. 

What's new in Broward County?

JACKSON: We've incorporated a lot of the G.I.S. data that we would be receiving from the cities and from the teams which go out to assess damage. It is mapping that will be overlaid by damage assessment teams as they go out into the neighborhoods to determine what the level of damage is. There's an app that we have that they will be using to upload visuals as to that. Homeowners also can get a hold of that. We will be pulling all those into the EOC to give us a visual representation in real time of where our hardest hit areas are. 

Homeowners themselves would be able to say, for instance, take a photo or somehow communicate the damage in their neighborhood directly to the emergency operations center?

JACKSON: They'll put it into the app and our G.I.S. people will be pulling that data into the EOC to help give us a real time picture of what it looks like on the ground. 

We learned after Matthew and Irma that we need to be clear in our message. - Bill Johnson

What do you anticipate the result of that information to be in the aftermath of a disaster?

JACKSON: From the EOC perspective, it helps us with resource allocation because if we have intel that tells us in real time if there's an area that's harder hit than another area, not only would it let us redirect crews into the area, but also other supplies  that maybe needed. 

What is being instituted in Palm Beach County? 

JOHNSON: The number one new thing for Palm Beach County this year is that we're focusing on messaging. We learned after Matthew and Irma that we need to be clear in our message.

We have five evacuation zones in Palm Beach County. We only evacuated two of them because of the threat that Irma posed for us. But the problem was that I think it was kind of confusing. These evacuations zones are pinpoint and we were using just the street west of 95, north of this, and whatnot. Oftentimes, people don't necessarily know their geography well.

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Alexander Gonzalez produces the afternoon newscasts airing during All Things Considered. He enjoys helping tell the South Florida story through audio and digital platforms. Alex is interested in a little of everything from business to culture to politics.
Tom Hudson is WLRN's Senior Economics Editor and Special Correspondent.