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Fickle Erika fizzles to hurricane drill

Tribe employees from multiple departments hustle to unload cases of bottled water Aug. 28 at the old Hollywood gymnasium as the threat of Tropical Storm Erika loomed.
Tribe employees from multiple departments hustle to unload cases of bottled water Aug. 28 at the old Hollywood gymnasium as the threat of Tropical Storm Erika loomed.

When all was said and done, Tropical Storm Erika, the first real hurricane threat to Florida in a decade, delivered nothing more to Seminole communities than a long overdue reality check.

“Let’s call it a drill – just in case,” said Business Marketing Department manager Tiffany Marquez, passing the word Aug. 27 for Seminole Media Production employees to prepare for a hurricane according to new tribalwide procedures.

Executive Director of Public Safety and Chief of Police William Latchford said that for many years common sense guidelines steered departments toward ensuring positive outcomes should a hurricane occur but no formal directive was in place to dictate specific actions.

This year, under the All Hazard Standard Operating Procedures plan adopted in 2013, when Erika revved on Aug. 27 with 48 to 68 mile per hour winds that slashed through the Caribbean killing 20 on a potential march toward South Florida, departments went into preparation mode.

“In the past, one issue that always came up was that departments knew what they had to do but there was nothing in writing. Now, because over a year and a half ago everyone wrote down their policies and procedures, we had instructions at our fingertips. Even if someone was new to a department, they could open a book and read what to do,” Latchford said.

Directives, procedures and specific job functions were noted clearly in handy binders. By early Aug. 28, Gov. Rick Scott had declared a state of emergency and by 5 p.m. all Seminole departments were prepared. Department buildings deemed at risk or insecure were buckled up.

As the leader of a sovereign nation, Chairman James E. Billie also declared a state of emergency throughout Seminole land. By Aug. 29, Erika had become so weak that she was no longer named.

Latchford said Erika’s ever-changing trajectory and strength made the storm hard to predict.

“Information from the National Weather Service was so fluid; it was changing all the time. It became our mindset to prepare for the most severe storm. We could always scale back, but it’s always hard to ramp up in the middle of it all,” Latchford said.

“Just in case” measures are important to document before a storm hits to justify Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding after the storm. The Tribe, like all communities, must prove assets, manpower hours used and precautionary actions taken in order to recoup money spent and property lost.

Latchford said the balance was struck between monitoring the storm and not creating panic. All hands were on deck throughout the reservations, Latchford said, to share preparation duties while carrying out the regular work day.

In Hollywood, a truckload of bottled water was unloaded by hand at the old gymnasium under the direction of Recreation Department site manager Joe Collins.

“We’re preparing for the worst and hoping for the best. If the storm gets worse, we’ll be sandbagging the floors tomorrow. Tonight, we’ll bag the computers,” Collins said. “Otherwise, it’s business as usual.”

Hollywood swimming pool lifeguard Jonathan Funes helped unload the cases of water.

“Usually I keep people safe in the water. This time I want them to drink it,” Funes said.

Throughout the Taft Street building, where the Native Learning Center, Construction Management and several other departments operate, employees bustled to simultaneously finish an ordinary day of work and move important documents and equipment into safe quarters.

At the Seminole Media Productions building, sandbagging and shuttering had already begun.

Latchford credited Tribal Community Development Director Adam Nelson for leading the brunt of tribal businesses, homes and community buildings into secure situations. Nelson’s department mobilized about 80 employees in Housing, Public Works and the Environmental Resource Management departments.

“We have to be beyond prepared every day … for streamlining communication and action for the betterment of all communities,” Nelson said.

Hurricane preparation began in May, Latchford said. Partnering with the Health, Housing, Building and Construction Management departments, Public Safety had already “touched base door to door” with homeowners and department heads to access needs and to remind all to have supplies ready and areas cleared of loose objects that could become projectiles.

During the Erika threat, police and fire personnel made additional community visits.

“It was a good test run,” Latchford said. “We never like to see a storm come at us, but we haven’t had a significant event to worry about in years. It was good to see emergency management and all the departments prepared.”