homepage logo

All it takes is One Storm to Change Everything

By CJ HADDAD - | May 30, 2024

When it comes to hurricane season in Lee County, emergency operations and staff work year-round to be prepared for whatever may come, as all it takes is one storm to change everything.

Based on forecasts and projections from various weather experts, the county is expecting an “active” season.

That’s not cause to panic, but it is reason to be prepared, officials said.

“In Lee County we’re not focused on the long-range or even the season forecast, we’re focused every single day on preparedness,” said Lee County Public Safety Director Ben Abes. “And we want the community to focus on preparedness with us as well. There’s a lot of information that’s available, and we want the community to go out and utilize that information to make good decisions and to prepare their plans this year.”

Abes said being in-tune with local media, as well as the National Weather Service in Tampa and National Hurricane Center, are great ways to get the latest information when a storm approaches. Residents can also turn to www.leegov.com/hurricane for a number of important resources, such as the county’s All Hazards Guide, which helps individuals and families prepare for a storm or emergency. 

There also is AlertLee, which is an emergency notification system that allows registered users to get calls, texts, and email alerts related to natural and man-made emergencies. Residents can also download the LeePrepares app and watch videos on the county’s website that illustrates best practices in the event of a disaster. 

“Those are great if you have a community or a group of family members that are getting together,” Abes said. “You can use that and share with your friends and neighbors so that they are preparing with you at the same time if a storm does approach.”

Since last year, the county has taken a number of steps to continue to learn from Hurricane Ian and improve readiness for storms. The recently-completed After Action Report is being drawn from, as is the Resilient Lee “Recovery and Resilience Plan.” This means the county has effectively identified areas for everything from operational improvements (AAR) to long-term resilience projects (R&R Plan).

Examples include:

• Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan

• Many incremental changes in departmental operations to improve future responses

• Internal departmental adjustments

• Federalizing contracts to expedite reimbursement after a storm

Abes said the county is constantly working to hone in on improvements, and is excited by what’s to come from the Resilient Lee Plan. 

“We’re already having conversations with not only municipal partners, but non-profits, other community organizations — there’s a lot of people coming around the table to take action on that.”

Every year, Lee County offers key messages to the community. Three specific keys this year include:

• Have a Family Emergency Plan and an Emergency Supply Kit: Review these at the start of every hurricane season.  A Disaster Preparedness tax holiday is coming up from June 1 to June 14 this year, and it is a great time to review and restock your emergency supplies. Your Family Emergency Plan should include where you would evacuate – such as a family member’s or friend’s home or a community outside the area.

• Know Your Zone, Know your Home: It’s essential to know your Evacuation Zone going into storm season so you will be ready to react when evacuations are called for. 

• Be ready when a storm is forecast to impact our area: Your Family Emergency Plan should include securing loose items in your yard and ensuring your shutters are up. The time to take steps like this is before an Evacuation Order is issued. When officials issue an Evacuation Order, you should be ready to evacuate.

“We can’t control the forecast, but we can encourage everyone to be prepared,” Abes said. “And every single person in the community has an important role to play in making sure our county is ready for the next event.”

While no “major” face-surface changes have been made since the devastation of Hurricane Ian, the county has been working hard to add redundancy, or resiliency, such as strengthening internet and radio capabilities, and finding more sites for debris. 

“There’s a lot of work that happens in the background,” Abes said. “But it’s happening every single day to make sure that we’re prepared.

“Each county department has their own day-to-day functions, but every single county department also participates in our readiness for hurricane season,” Abes said. “The same people that are planning on how we’re going to collect the trash and recyclables. The same people that are delivering drinking water — all of those people are planning for how we’re going to deliver services.”

Throughout the late spring and early summer, the county will perform a series of exercises and activities with partner agencies to test all of the plans and have discussions. 

“It’s constantly evolving, just as our normal day-to-day service delivery evolves, our ability and what we do to be able to respond to disasters evolves as well,” Abes said.

The county’s Emergency Operations Center, or EOC, is currently undergoing an expansion that started in late 2023. The 36,873 square-foot expansion, during normal operations, will house Public Safety Administration, Emergency Medical Services, and a new Emergency Communications Center, with space for Public Safety’s Division of Emergency Communications, Lee County Sheriff’s Office Communications, and the Lee County Department of Transportation’s Traffic Operations Center. Lee County Emergency Management will remain in its existing location. When activated for an emergency such as a hurricane, the center will be staffed with key personnel from first-responder agencies, emergency relief organizations, county departments, municipalities, utility companies and other essential agencies.

To accommodate the numerous personnel during activation, the new facility will be equipped with technology and equipment, numerous restrooms, showers and sleeping accommodations, an extensive training facility, and additional amenities to contribute to the building’s efficiency and operational requirements.

This expansion was being planned well before Hurricane Ian, and is slated to culminate in the spring of 2025.

“When a storm is approaching, we start to get people into the EOC when a storm has really honed in on our community,” Abes said. “That room fills up very quickly, with everybody focused on preparing for what we will have to respond to and ensuring that we’re starting to pre-stage some of those resources.”

The county has heard time and time again that residents who had a plan were better prepared not only for a storm, but its aftermath.

While it may be preached over and over, being prepared is really the best course to take before the season.  Every resident can play their individual role in our community’s preparedness by having a plan and being ready to implement that plan if a storm approaches Southwest Florida.

“We want the community to have a plan. Have an emergency supply kit — do all of those things that we want them to do, for the next storm,” Abes said. “And if there’s a storm after that, you’ll be prepared for that one as well, because you’ve had all of those things in place.

“Share the preparedness videos. Share the All Hazards Guide. Those are on our website and are great resources to share with family and neighbors. Have a plan. Be ready.”

Lee County information may be found at www.leegov.com/publicsafety/emergencymanagement