Leaders Look To Learn From Hermine

Sep 30, 2016

Credit Regan McCarthy WFSU News

It’s been about a month since Hurricane Hermine blew through Tallahassee, testing state and local storm responses for the first time in more than a decade. Now citizens and officials are looking back on what went well and what needs improvement.

When Hermine hit Tallahassee, it left about 80 percent of the city’s citizens in the dark.

“I’d go out at night with a flashlight checking on the community. And our area when there are no lights it gets very dark,” Cunningham says.

That’s Jackie Cunningham. She lives in the Miccosukee Hills Apartments, a senior living community, where she’s also the activities coordinator. Following Hermine, she says she teamed up with community organizers to help get her elderly neighbors what they needed—like food and ice.

“And management was great about bringing out ice. They brought like one day it was over 50-something pounds and another day it was like 30 something pounds," Cunningham says.

But as the power stayed off the next day, then the next, Cunningham says keeping residents comfortable got harder. City officials took a hit from frustrated citizens who said the city was taking too long to turn the power back on. And the issue grew political as Republican leaders criticized Democratic Mayor Andrew Gillum for what they saw as a poorly organized response. In that moment, Deputy City manager Reese Goad says crews were focused on working as fast as they could. But since then, Goad says he’s had some time to dig into some data.

“There’s a statewide organization that just put out some information about how other communities, and I think it was county by county, because that’s the way the data is collected, how they’ve recovered relative to other storms and it included Superstorm Sandy and I believe it was Hurricane Irene in Louisiana, but a number of hurricanes in the state of Florida. And what the data actually reveals is that this restoration was ahead of all of them with the exception of Fay that impacted Leon county six or eight years ago and that did not have the wind associated with it that Hurricane Hermine did,” Goad says.

But Cunningham says while that’s great for the city, it’s still not fast enough for the area’s most vulnerable residents.

“When you’ve got people on oxygen, people on nebulizers, c-pap machines, other machines that are keeping them going, that’s why too long,” Cunningham says.

Meanwhile, Goad admits there’s always room for improvement and government leaders are hoping they can pinpoint needed changes by talking with community members, like Cunningham about their experiences after Hermine. Officials just wrapped up a series of community listening sessions for just that purpose and Goad says one thing he’s heard again and again is that communication needs to be better.

“And actually what we are observing is that people communicate in different ways in so many different ways. And it’s not one medium that is the means of choice. It’s maybe radio, maybe social media, maybe put it in a text message, put it up on TV. We can improve on that,” Goad says.

Meanwhile, state leaders are looking for their own lessons in the Hermine aftermath and officials say one area of improvement could be citizen readiness. Florida Governor Rick Scott says he witnessed first-hand the impact Hermine had for come citizens.

“I had the opportunity as you know to visit some of these areas that had this unbelievable storm surge and it really hurt a lot of these families. As you know, the federal government changed the cost of flood insurance. I remember going down the Keeton Beach and one lady just last year canceled it because it got too expensive and it sounded like she’d been down there her whole life,” Scott says.

Meanwhile, officials remind citizens hurricane season is far from over. Some experts had worried that Floridians had become complacent after more than a decade with no hurricane making landfall in the state. They’re hopeful Hermine can be a learning experience for everyone.