NEW PORT RICHEY — Sixteen minutes. That’s all the notice residents in Moore, Okla., had last year that a powerful tornado was approaching.
Tropical Storm Debby pounded Pasco in late June 2012, offering a hinted of the destruction a major hurricane strike could inflict on the area.
Those are a few of the observations that chiefs of half a dozen Pasco County agencies made Tuesday. They united at a press conference to emphasize readiness before the 2014 Atlantic hurricane season starts June 1 and dispel complacency among residents.
“Our big message today is that it can happen to any of us,” Sheriff Chris Nocco said.
While county agencies are preparing now, Nocco said long-range goals remain as well. The proposed Ridge Road extension is “critical” for evacuations. For more than a decade, the proposal to extend Ridge Road form the Moon Lake-River Ridge area to the Suncoast Parkway and U.S. 41 has encountered much opposition from environmentalists and has not received a needed environmnetal permit for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
During an evacuation, S.R. 54 could get clogged with traffic, since some North Pinellas residents would join Pasco residents fleeing from a hurricane, Nocco said.
Also, the county seeks more shelters along the S.R. 54 corridor because of rapid growth there, Pasco Emergency Management Director Annette Doying observed. Three more shelters might become available this year.
The county might have to bypass four shelters near the coast during major hurricanes, Doying added. That could mean a deficit of 5,000 shelter spaces, so emergency leaders are looking at contingency plans.
Pasco County Health Department Administrator Mike Napier convened the press conference to deliver the readiness message as part of National Public Health Week.
“Our role at the health department during hurricanes is to protect some of the most vulnerable citizens,” Napier said. “We cannot effectively do that with those residents unless they take an active role in their care.”
For instance, people with special needs need to register soon for shelters that can provide the extra care, Napier noted.
“We’ve been blessed in Florida the past couple of years that we have not seen a major, natural disaster,” Nocco said. “That does not mean it cannot happen. People get very comfortable. They say it won’t happen to me, it won’t happen here in Pasco County. It can.”
Residents need to be ready, the sheriff said, so that “when we do tell you to evacuate, please evacuate. We do it because we are trying save you and your family.” It’s too late when water is rising fast and winds are picking up velocity.
Many people need to figure out how to contact relatives who live outside the area, Nocco said. Families must agree on where they would meet if they are displaced. Dogs, cats and other pets are relying on their owners to be ready. He recommends stocking a survival box of necessities now.
Last-minute planning is too late when disaster looms, Assistant County Administrator for Public Safety Randy TeBeest emphasized. That situation confronted the Moore, Okla., residents as an EF5 tornado bore down on the city and claimed 24 lives.
Before a crisis, people need to figure out what steps to take first, such as going to a child’s school, heading to a spouse’s workplace or finding shelter, TeBeest said. Families need to determine where they would meet should their home be destroyed.
Hurricane prep also helps for other emergencies or man-made disasters, Pasco Fire Chief Scott Cassin said. Pasco Fire Rescue crews typically respond to 160 emergency calls a day, he said.
Cassin urged residents to check batteries in smoke alarms, mow tall grass or vegetation around a home as brush fire season approaches and practice emergency response. “Make sure everyone knows what to do when the smoke alarm sounds at 3 in the morning” or a severe thunderstorm approaches.