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Weathering the Storm
– Preparation is key

By Jeffry Boatright

Above photo: Ravaged by Tropical Storm Debby – Howard Street (Highway 90) facing west in Live Oak, on June 26, 2012. - SVT Photo Archives by Jamie Ganote

The afternoon thunderstorms of Florida have given credence to the old adage, if you don’t like the weather here, hang around a few minutes, it will change. During the months of summer, an afternoon thunderstorm can develop quickly, transforming the blistering heat from unbearable to somewhat tolerable, or even comfortable. Those storms can pass as quickly as they arise, leaving rising temperatures, extreme humidity and, at times, quite a mess to clean up.

This is our beloved North Florida with the Gulf of Mexico to our west and the Atlantic Ocean to our east. Of course, during the summer months these two large bodies of water naturally foster tropical storms and hurricanes with their warm waters. Already over a full month into hurricane season, which officially began June 1, things have been relatively quiet thus far, at least for North Florida. However, the Atlantic Hurricane Season doesn’t officially end until Nov. 30.

Although we Floridians maintain a keen awareness of hurricane season and the necessity to prepare for such an event, Suwannee County Sheriff’s Office Division of Emergency Management Assistant Director Kimberly Thomas stresses the importance of planning for multiple threats that are associated with the season. According to Thomas, tornadoes, potential flooding, electrical storms and sinkholes are examples of conceivable hazards that could suddenly develop with or without the presence of a tropical storm.

Cautioning against taking our inland location too lightly, Thomas emphasized that Tropical Storm Debby was not a hurricane when it wreaked havoc in North Florida just five years ago. The storm that seemed to pack little wind left scores of residents stranded and without power or consumable water. In many cases, residents were flooded out of their homes and left with the bleak memory of helplessly watching their belongings wash away with the raging waters that consumed the yards and streets in which children played just hours earlier.

It is a memory that Thomas, along with others who serve our communities in emergency management, hopes to never experience again. However, she recognizes that natural disasters and extreme weather events are out of our control. “It’s not if it happens, it’s when,” she conceded in a somber tone.

While we cannot prevent another Tropical Storm Debby, Hurricane Dora or even another Hurricane Katrina, there are steps that we can take to better prepare us, according to the Division of Emergency Management. Proactive measures at the household level, coupled with improved technology, can better prepare and inform potential storm victims. The ultimate goal is keeping everyone safe as they weather the storm.

A great place to start is visiting on the world wide web. There, individuals and families can create a disaster plan. The plans aren’t limited to individuals or families, but include plans for businesses and individuals with special needs. Developing a plan for individuals with special needs is essential, Thomas explained. In the event of an evacuation or disaster, emergency personnel should be made aware of those individuals with special needs who require assistance.

Even after developing a special needs plan, Suwannee County residents are asked to notify the Division of Emergency Management at (386) 364-3405 or visit them at 617 Ontario Ave. SW, in Live Oak. All residents are encouraged to drop by and receive an emergency preparedness guide, which addresses a multitude of situations ranging from thunderstorms to a nuclear attack.

When creating a family disaster plan, the Florida Division of Emergency Management has made it easy. A plan is generated based on the information provided and suggests items to include in an emergency supply kit. While the Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends including a supply of water for at least three days in an emergency supply kit, Thomas suggests a water supply for seven to 10 days.

In addition to an ample supply of food and water, it is recommended to have a battery-powered radio to remain informed, along with flashlights, batteries, toiletries, garbage bags, blankets, a change of clothing, plastic utensils and paper plates. Personal identification, copies of important documents, maps, spare keys and prescription medications are also important to include in an emergency supply kit. Thomas also recommends including a copy of medical records and prescription information, especially for potential victims with special needs.

Obviously, there are other things to consider if the need to evacuate does occur, such as turning off main switches and valves for gas, as well as water and electricity. While it is not recommended to leave pets behind, personal safety should never be risked in attempting to locate them either. Pet owners are encouraged to make a list of pet shelters and hotels that permit animals in the area they plan to evacuate to.

It certainly doesn’t take long for a tropical storm to develop or change course, leaving limited time to prepare. Through creating a family disaster plan and assembling an emergency supply kit in advance, potential victims can react much quicker. Of course, keeping a supply of propane gas for cooking, adequately fueled vehicles and enough cash are all good habits to exercise in storm preparedness.

While it is easy to assume that each day of summer is going to be typically hot, humid and possibly interrupted with an afternoon or evening shower, we know there is an uncertainty in this North Florida climate. According to Thomas, staying abreast of emergency situations and the potential of such situations is paramount in emergency preparedness. “When in doubt, contact your local emergency management office,” she added.