FORT WALTON BEACH — Jeff Goldberg, director of emergency management for Walton County, knows what he doesn't want to do during this hurricane season — or any hurricane season — if a major storm comes ashore in his Florida Panhandle jurisdiction.
"I don't want to be the guy on the state conference call requesting 5,000 body bags," Goldberg said in an interview some days prior to Saturday's start of the 2019 hurricane season. The season, which stretches from June 1 to Nov. 30 each year, keeps Goldberg and other emergency management personnel on their toes.
Goldberg made his stark point as part of urging people who may find themselves in or near the projected path of a hurricane to take seriously — and comply with — orders to evacuate.
"Our concern is getting the people out," he said. "If people don't leave when we tell them to, that worries me."
In the wake of October's Hurricane Michael, a Category 5 storm that brushed Walton County but laid waste to counties farther east in the Panhandle, Goldberg took time to check local databases on ordered evacuations.
"I know not everybody evacuated out of the area we told them to," he said.
In its recent assessment of the 2019 hurricane season, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center is predicting a "near normal" Atlantic hurricane season as most likely this year, at 40 percent. NOAA pegs the likelihood of an above-normal season at 30 percent and sets the chance of a below-normal season also at 30 percent.
More specifically, according to an agency news release, NOAA predicts a likely range of nine to 15 named storms, with winds of 39 mph or higher, churning across the Atlantic seaboard including the Gulf of Mexico during this hurricane season. The agency projects four to eight of those storms could become hurricanes, with two to four of those storms becoming major hurricanes with winds of 111 mph or higher. According to the NOAA release, an average hurricane season produces twelve named storms, with six becoming hurricanes and three developing into major hurricanes.
NOAA's projections are in line with Colorado State University's Tropical Meteorology Project, which is calling for 13 named storms, with five becoming hurricanes and two reaching major hurricane status. Colorado State researchers also have set a 28 percent probability that some part of the Gulf Coast — from Brownsville, Texas through the Florida Panhandle — will experience landfall of a major hurricane during this year's season.
Regardless of where hurricanes might make landfall this season, local emergency management personnel, hospitals and other emergency service providers have to be prepared for the eventuality that their communities will be hit.
“It only takes one event to devastate a community," Daniel Kaniewski, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's deputy administrator for resilience, said in connection with NOAA's announcement of its projections for this hurricane season.
That's a lesson that's been taken to heart in Northwest Florida, particularly by emergency management officials in areas immediately outside the stretch of the Panhandle all but leveled by Hurricane Michael.
"We definitely did," Brad Baker, emergency management director for Santa Rosa County, said when asked whether his county's emergency personnel had learned anything from Hurricane Michael.
Like other area counties, Santa Rosa County escaped the ravages of Hurricane Michael, and was able to send some of its emergency response personnel to more hard-hit counties. Santa Rosa County personnel went to Washington County under terms of a statewide mutual aid agreement — an altruistic arrangement, to be sure, but one that also allows responding counties to stockpile lessons for the day that a severe hurricane crosses their shores.
Santa Rosa County learned those lessons more than a dozen years ago, when 2004's Hurricane Ivan, and 2005's Hurricane Dennis struck close to home. In the intervening years, Baker said, "we've had a chance to rebuild," including work by AT&T and Verizon to harden the county's cell phone infrastructure.
Hurricane Michael carried a couple of communications lessons for Santa Rosa County, Baker said. For one, the county has upgraded its pair of 15-year-old backpack-style satellite phones with two newer models. Now, as a result of being stuck out in Washington County without reliable communications, Santa Rosa County has a new satellite phone for its emergency operations center and a second one for the field.
Additionally, Baker said, Santa Rosa County's experience in Washington County has given his county's amateur radio operators, which he frankly admits had become an afterthought in hurricane preparedness, an integral role in the county's hurricane emergency communications efforts.
Another concern about communications has prompted an evolving change in Santa Rosa County's hurricane response protocols, according to Baker. With the proliferation of social media, he explained, the county has faced some difficulty in countering less-than-reliable information with official communications. As a result, a rumor control operation has become a part of the county's emergency operations center.
Personnel tagged with that duty monitor social media for inaccurate information, and work specifically to debunk it.
"We're not afraid to stick our necks out," Baker said, to identify and discredit purveyors of errant information. "Now, we'll just call them out."
Like Walton County's Goldberg, Baker is worried about people paying attention to evacuation orders, and about how social media might influence people's decisions on staying or leaving as a hurricane threatens.
"We're trying to be more out in the social media world," he said. "We're not going to hide anything."
As noted, for Goldberg, evacuation is key to an effective hurricane emergency response. Calling Hurricane Michael the worst disaster he's seen in 30 years of emergency management work, Goldberg said, "I don't think anybody could have been ready for Hurricane Michael. When you have a storm that intense, there's really nothing you can do."
Like Santa Rosa County, Walton County was able to send emergency response personnel into the area ravaged by Hurricane Michael. Goldberg sent his operations director to Jackson County, and Goldberg went to Bay County as a deputy incident commander.
One thing they learned, Goldberg said, was that Walton County needed to diversify its cellphone communication options. In Bay County after Hurricane Michael, he explained, AT&T cell service was available, but Verizon service was not. In Franklin County, he said, the situation was reversed.
As a result, Walton County now has a cache of "stand-by" cell phones for emergency personnel — 30 with Verizon service, 30 with AT&T service, and 30 more with Southern Linc service.
Additionally, Goldberg said, the county's emergency operations budget has been beefed up for the coming fiscal year as a direct result of Hurricane Michael, with money likely to go for additional satellite phones and for additional parking at the emergency operations center.
Hurricane Michael also taught lessons outside the halls of government in the run-up to the 2019 hurricane season. One of those places was Fort Walton Beach Medical Center, one of the hospitals in the immediate vicinity of Michael's landfall that saw a dramatic and sustained increase in patient load in the aftermath of the Category 5 storm.
Fort Walton Beach Medical Center is part of HCA Healthcare, a group of nearly 200 hospitals and dozens of other health-care facilities across the country, and the local hospital learned at least a couple of lessons from Gulf Coast Regional Medical Center, a sister facility in Panama City, ground zero for Hurricane Michael.
Gulf Coast stayed open through the hurricane and its aftermath, although for a time, only its emergency department was operating. The hospital became fully operational again in January.
In hindsight, and as new guidance for HCA facilities, it's likely that more attention will be paid to the needs of personnel remaining in facilities during a hurricane emergency, according to Todd Jackson, chief operating officer at Fort Walton Beach Medical Center. Jackson said it was several days after the hurricane struck before the people staffing Gulf Coast Regional Medical Center could get a hot meal, take a hot shower or wash and dry their clothes, because the need for those comforts hadn't necessarily been at the top of the priority list.
In the future, Jackson said, HCA facilities dealing with hurricanes or other disasters likely will "pick up the phone and mobilize those assets sooner."
Like the county emergency management agencies, Gulf Coast Regional Medical Center noted issues with cell phone communications during Hurricane Michael, Jackson added. The hospital eventually got a cell phone system on site dedicated specifically to the facility and its personnel, but it took 72 hours to get the system in place, he said.
Communications are "absolutely critical," Jackson said, noting that Fort Walton Beach Medical Center has satellite phones for outgoing calls in an emergency, and also has radios that can interface with local law enforcement and emergency personnel.
Like other HCA hospitals, Fort Walton Beach Medical Center has a facility-specific hurricane preparedness plan that maps out preparations beginning 120 hours before projected landfall. In the event a hurricane threatens, the hospital can call in nurses from other HCA facilities around the country, Jackson said. Additionally, the hospital has generators and diesel fuel that can power the facility for a matter of days.
But, Jackson said, if there's one thing to be learned about hurricane preparedness, it's that planning for disaster must be redundant.
"You've got to have a contingency for the contingency," he said.