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Record-breaking hurricane season finally ends

Making preparations during the pandemic a major challenge for state, local EOC staffs

By CJ HADDAD - | Dec 3, 2020

It was an Atlantic hurricane season for the record books, literally, as more named storms were formed in 2020 than any other year prior.

While Southwest Florida was lucky enough to not find itself in direct line with a major hurricane, many things were learned this year when it comes to emergency response amidst a pandemic.

Communication was paramount for response teams throughout the county, who had to become innovative due to limited personnel allowed in an area at one time. Perhaps the biggest concern that never came to fruition was what to do if shelters needed to be opened throughout the region.

“It takes a whole community effort to both prepare for and respond to storm threats,” said Director of Lee County Public Safety – Emergency Management Lee Mayfield. “We worked with the state and our local partners well in advance of the 2020 season and throughout it to identify areas of our hurricane response plans that might need adjustments based on COVID-19. These areas of focus included evacuation planning, shelter operations and EOC staffing.”

There were a record 30 named storms throughout the season that “officially” ended Nov. 30, including 17 tropical storms and 13 hurricanes — six of which were “major” (category 3 or greater).

Hurricane Eta did cause Lee County Schools to close for one day in November and spelled an early release just days later as is looped back around the Gulf.  

For just the second time in the modern era, the Atlantic season was depleted of pre-determined names for the season. In mid-September, all 21 names from the English alphabet were used which resulted in the Greek alphabet being administered, the first time that’s happened since 2005.

For the first time since 2012, two named storms formed before the June 1 “official” start to the season, which was a forecast of things to come.

Every single named storm other than Tropical Storm Dolly earned the record for the earliest forming storm of that letter in 2020.

September proved to be the most active month, as 10 named storms formed over 30 days.

Cape Coral Emergency Management Division Manager Alvin Henderson said 2020 was a year where staff had to get creative in its ways to share information, not just throughout the department, but also to the public. Emergency management coordinators even came up with the first pandemic hurricane plan in the city’s history.

First and foremost, Henderson and the division is grateful Cape Coral did not experience a major weather event. Although never say never, especially in 2020.

“We’re always thankful when Mother Nature saves us from her wrath,” Henderson said. “While we talk about a definitive start and end to hurricane season, Mother Nature sometimes has other plans. We saw a named storm before the official start date and there are still disturbances out there that are far from us, but still out there brewing.”

Henderson said the internal dynamic was essentially the same: to keep residents safe from potential hazards and give the most up-to-date information.

Unfamiliar to the division was working on how to best protect those working inside of the EOC and making sure tasks could still be performed accurately with a mitigated crew.

“The added dynamic of being in the middle of a pandemic also has us take into account the safety and security off the staff members that make up the city of Cape Coral and those who work at the Emergency Operations Center,” Henderson said.

Producing a pandemic hurricane response took the efforts of all in the division.  Henderson said the challenge was to plan adequately for a major event with limited staff and while many worked remotely.

“The worst case scenario is trying to figure out how few people we can operate with and still meet the demands of the situation,” he said. “I’m proud to say the plan was very well thought out and also modeled by other cities not just in Florida.

“Our team sat down, talked about the situation, and basically white-boarded issues, concerns, and throwing all of our ideas out. It was all pulled together into the city’s first pandemic hurricane plan.”

A big stressor to the community this year (and nearly every year) was for residents not to rely on a hurricane shelter if evacuation is necessary.

“In many cases, the best plan is to have friends or family member miles away rather than states away to move locally past that evacuation area and not have to go into a large area with a lot of other people during a pandemic at a shelter,” Henderson said.

Henderson said they looked at shelter management with the county and wanted to make sure the public would know what to expect if they were to have to enter a shelter during a hurricane. Local officials spoke of health screenings, temperatures taken, contact tracing questions and more. Henderson said there were talks about the potential distribution of personal protective equipment to those at shelters as well.

Going forward, Henderson said the EOC would continue to look at the “pooling” method of having a high number of staff in one area and continue to research how to best utilize technology.

“We’re looking at almost a hub-and-spoke arrangement where you have a central emergency operations center that is coordinating everything, with then other city departments having more of a department operations center that works in concert with our main EOC,” Henderson said.

What Henderson and all at the EOC want the public to know is that no matter how many named storms are formed in any given year, it only takes one to make it a “bad year,” so it’s always a good time to be prepared.


–Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj