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Pinellas as prepared as ever for storms, officials say

Tribune staff

Published:   |   Updated: June 3, 2014 at 03:50 PM

— For almost 100 years, this stretch of coastline has enjoyed a charmed existence, catching at worst only glancing blows from the dozens of hurricanes that ravaged other parts of Florida’s shoreline.

That’s luckier than it seems, since, for the past 28 years, Pinellas County’s Emergency Operations Center — the nerve center of its disaster preparation and recovery efforts — has been housed in the basement of a former jail whose windows are vulnerable to hurricane-force winds.

“If we got a Category 3 or higher, the windows would have failed,” said Tom Iovino, an emergency preparedness specialist with Pinellas County. “The building would have flooded because windows would have blown out.”

The complex, paid for through Penny for Pinellas revenue, is storm-hardened and can run on generator power. In the event of a disaster, the building can remain operational without being resupplied for up to two weeks.

“Worst-case scenario, something like (Hurricane) Charley comes through Pinellas County and it will still be there,” he said.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasters are predicting a near- or below-normal hurricane season this year, with eight to 13 named storms, three to six hurricanes and one or two major hurricanes.

That is mainly based on the expected development this summer of El Niño, a band of warmer waters in the eastern Pacific Ocean. It typically produces faster winds in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean region, making it tougher for hurricanes to form.

But NOAA officials are warning against complacency, a caution echoed by Iovino, who remembers a similar forecast in 1992, the year that Category 5 Hurricane Andrew left 44 dead, destroyed an estimated 63,000 homes and caused about $25 billion in damage in Florida.

“That’s your warning right there,” he said.

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In addition to its new EOC, Pinellas has updated its automated notification system this year.

The previous system only could send text messages to a maximum of 10,000 cellphones. The county, in partnership with the cities of Belleair, Seminole, Treasure Island and other local agencies, is paying $235,000 a year for FirstCall, a system that can send texts, emails and automated phone messages across the whole county or to specific communities.

In the event of a hurricane, the system can provide residents who register up-to-date information on evacuation orders and the location of water supplies. The county’s annual share of the cost is about $116,000.

“You can put everybody in the family on it,” Iovino said. “We’re trying to reach you as many ways as possible.”

Florida residents this year also for the first time will get official storm surge estimates from NOAA when their area is under a hurricane watch.

“It’s the storm surge that kills the most people,” said Brian LaMarre, meteorologist-in-charge at NOAA’s National Weather Service Tampa Bay. “You’ll be able to see how much water potentially will flood the area.”