On The Front Line

It wasn’t your typical spring thunderstorm.

On the afternoon of April 20, 2015, 90mph winds tore a devastating path through the gated retirement communities of Oak Run and Palm Cay in southwest Marion County.

The National Weather Service in Jacksonville confirmed that the storm included an EF-1 tornado, which traveled along the ground for about two miles, stretching up to 1,000 feet wide at one spot.

In the wake of the storm, 55 to 60 homes sustained damage, 10 to the point that they were deemed unlivable, according to fire officials. Fortunately, no one was killed or injured.

Although the storm’s exact path might have been unpredictable, Marion County’s emergency response was right on target.

“The entire system worked the way it was supposed to,” says Erin Miller, deputy director of Marion County Emergency Management. “All the first responders, county and city government representatives were working together.

“We set up two commands,” she adds. “The fire department was on scene, as well as sheriff deputies watching the perimeters to make sure they were secure. Local management from both communities was there, and within three hours, we had everyone in shelters whose homes were damaged. The county property appraiser’s office was on the scene within hours to conduct damage assessment.”

Prior Preparation

In our part of Florida, the most common weather emergencies include severe thunderstorm and wind events, hurricanes and wild fires. With drought conditions this winter, fire danger is higher than normal in Marion County this spring.

We take it for granted that local authorities are prepared to handle emergency situations, but that preparation is the result of extensive training and long hours.

“We provide training for all our partners throughout the county—everyone from the fire department to public works to county engineers and commissioners,” says Miller.

“We bring them all into the Emergency Operations Center to ensure we’re all on the same page with emergency awareness,” she adds, explaining that it’s vital not only to have training but to have a plan and procedures in place so everyone knows what to do.

Training includes creating mock scenarios so that first responders and community officials alike know what can be expected and what they need to do. These scenarios include everything from an active shooter or widespread forest fires to hurricanes and other natural disasters.

In Citrus County, the Emergency Operations Center is led by Captain Dave DeCarlo. As in Marion County, emergency management officials work all year to ensure that citizens’ emergency needs are met, whether the situation is due to accident, natural disaster or even a catastrophic event caused by terrorism.

“Training is a year-round process,” notes DeCarlo. “We conduct exercises, drills and tabletops throughout the year to ensure we exceed the public’s expectations. The most important part of our training is the evaluation process. It’s great to see what we did well, but what do we need to improve upon? That’s what I’m looking for. How can we improve on our preparation, response and recovery?”

Citizen Preparedness

Although it’s comforting to think that emergency management teams are ready to respond, citizens also have a role to play. Take steps ahead of time to ensure that you and your family are ready for a weather emergency or lengthy power outage.

“Every family should have supplies on hand for each family member to last for at least three days. You need to assume you might have to survive on your own if we get hit by a bad hurricane or something that takes out the power,” emphasizes Captain Chip Wildy, who has been with the Marion County Sheriff’s Office for over 36 years and recently retired after 16 years as emergency management director, a position now held by Preston Bowlin.

Officials recommend having a supply of bottled water that will last two weeks, not just three days. This translates to one gallon per person per day.

You’ll also want to have non-perishable food and frozen gel packs that can be placed in a cooler. If anyone in your family has special medical or dietary needs, take this into consideration when planning ahead. The same holds true if anyone is taking prescription medication. Having at least a two-week supply on hand should get you through most emergency scenarios.

Keep in mind that if you need to apply for disaster assistance following severe weather, you’ll need the certified deed to your property. According to the Citrus County Clerk’s Office, “a certified copy is substantive proof of ownership of your home and/or property and should be stored with other important papers in a safe place, away from your home.”

Stay Alert

As the saying goes, “Forewarned is forearmed.” A big part of being prepared is being informed.

In June 2016, Marion County Emergency Management implemented “Alert Marion,” an opt-in emergency alert and notification program. Residents sign up to receive critical information about emergencies and community situations, ranging from severe weather and evacuations to road closures and missing persons.

Citrus County has been using Alert Citrus since mid-December 2016. (Previously, the county utilized a system known as CodeRed.) The Citrus County Sheriff’s Office works with Everbridge, “a company specializing in unified critical communications to keep Citrus residents, department staff members and emergency personnel informed with quick and reliable emergency notifications and public service announcements via Alert Citrus.”

“When you sign up, you choose from various ways you want the message delivered, such as text, voice message, phone call, etc.,” explains Miller. “Messages go out any time people in that targeted geographical area need to be aware of an alert.

“This system has worked great,” she adds. “It’s being provided to every county in Florida by the Florida Division of Emergency Management. Marion was the second county in the state to get involved. As of February, about half the counties in the state are involved, and by the end of 2017, every county should have this system in place.”

Play A Part

Residents of Marion or Citrus County who want to be more involved can volunteer with the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), a program that is active in more than 30 Florida counties. CERT members go through a 21-hour basic training program and learn how to be prepared for emergency situations in their neighborhoods and communities.

CERT members give support to first responders. They are often first on the ground in the neighborhoods, providing assistance to victims and valuable information to emergency professionals.

“I’m very proud of all of our CERT volunteers. They each want to give back and serve the community they live in,” says DeCarlo. “They are an invaluable resource that first responders can tap into. They heavily assisted the residents of Citrus County in the aftermath of Hurricane Hermine and put their training and commitment to community to work.”

Citrus County residents interested in becoming part of the CERT team can fill out a volunteer application online at sheriffcitrus.org.

In addition to CERT, Marion County has an Emergency Management Volunteer Program in which citizens can volunteer with the Marion Emergency Radio Team (MERT). The program provides communications support to shelters, health care facilities, points of distribution and more during a disaster.

Marion County residents interested in becoming part of CERT or MERT, can fill out a volunteer application online at marionso.com.

Both Marion and Citrus counties maintain a registry of residents with special needs, which can be very important during an emergency.

These programs were set up to identify those who might need special equipment or assistance during an evacuation. If an evacuation is ordered in the area where a registered special needs person lives, they will be contacted to determine if they need assistance during the evacuation process. If so, specially-trained personnel will aid them.

Remember that as well trained as our first responders and county officials may be, we all need to heed warnings and make sure our own families are prepared.

It’s easy to become complacent about severe weather when you live in a state like Florida where it’s not unusual. When alerts and warnings are issued, take them seriously and follow any evacuation orders.

Homes can be replaced; lives cannot.

Do Your Part: Be Prepared!

Marion County Residents

Visit alertmarion.com to sign up for Alert Marion. Check out marionso.com and click on the “Emergency Management” button at the bottom left of the home page. From there, you can go to the Emergency Supply List to learn what to stock, fill out an application for the Special Needs Registry and much more. If you don’t have computer access or need to speak to someone, call Marion County Emergency Management at (352) 369-8100.

Citrus County Residents

Go to sheriffcitrus.org/emergency-management.php and click on the Alert Citrus link. For more information about emergency management in Citrus County, visit sheriffcitrus.org and click on the Emergency Management tab. If you need to speak to someone, call (352) 249-2705 or (352) 746-6555. In the event of an emergency, citizen information lines are staffed and open 24 hours a day. The numbers are (352) 527-2106 and (352) 746-5470..

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