Walton County's Director of Emergency Management addressed the topic of preparedness during hurricane season, as well as flood damage and options available at the Coastal Branch Library on Tuesday.
Russell Beaty said when most people think of hurricanes, they say they won't evacuate unless wind speed is predicted to be a Category 3. What they don't realize, said Beaty, is that the worst storm surge flooding comes with a Category 1 or 2.
"Super Storm Sandy was a cat 1 in wind speed, but she pushed in a huge storm surge causing massive flooding. A slower moving system pushes more water, not the faster ones," he said.
Beaty said we will hear forecasters talk of this factor more in the future, which will be an important factor for those living in or visiting South Walton, which is basically an island.
Evacuation orders will also be based more in the future with an eye toward the likelihood of storm surge.
Evacuation orders are issued early in Walton County because this county has the second-slowest evacuation time in the state, only behind the Keys, because the only outlet north is U.S. Highway 331, which is currently only two lanes.
Beaty noted that when issuing evacuation orders, the first notice is for voluntary evacuations, and goes out to non-residents, residents who might have difficulty leaving on short notice, those in mobile homes, and low-lying areas. However, most of South Walton is low lying.
If a storm continues to bear down and is headed this way, a mandatory evacuation order is issued. However, even then, residents have the option of staying and riding it out. But authorities issue a warning to all who choose to stay that there can be no rescue if they get in trouble because rescue personnel will not be here or able to get to them.
"The fire department leaves during a mandatory evacuation order," said Beaty. "They won't be here. And once the bridges close, they cannot be reopened without first being given the DOT's blessing."
However, since evacuation orders are often issued while the sky is still blue and the sun is shining, the public often likes to do their own forecasting and don't heed the warnings, which can place them in a dire situation.
Beaty also talked about the presence of FEMA in South Walton, warning that FEMA money does eventually run out if people wait too long to apply.
Following the July floods in South Walton, 115 residents applied for help. Since the last floods, 375 people have been helped. Beaty said many people have yet to report damage, but FEMA will only have a presence in South Walton until mid July.
Another source that many don't know about is the Small Business Administration. Following disasters, SBA also helps individuals with loans. Beaty advises to apply for a loan whether you want it or not because it will allow you to advance to the next step with FEMA.
As for streets and roads that suffer damage during storms, the county is not allowed by law to repair those on private property. A public road is one that is maintained by the county. However, pumping water off private roads is allowed.
Beaty urges all to be prepared for bad weather, as we are in hurricane season. The first thing everyone should do is have jugs of water, batteries, three days of extra food on hand, and extra medication. Families should also know where they will go if a hurricane threatens.
The county has one special needs shelter and it is located in Freeport.
None of the county's shelters accept pets as all the county's shelters are at schools and none can take on the liability. Those who have pets should search the internet for motels that are pet friendly.
A pet preparedness event will be held on June 21 at the bark park on J.D. Miller Road. The event is to educate the pet-owning community on how to be prepared for an emergency. Micro chipping will be available. There will also be a petting zoo, food vendors, and an obstacle course for pets. Pets are welcome.