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Dealing with disaster: the importance of preparedness.

The South Florida Water Management District felt the full fury of Hurricane Andrew. Long-standing hurricane preparedness measures and contingency plans enabled the district's personnel and facilities to continue functioning through the storm, to assist the state in its disaster response, and to immediately begin effective recovery activities.

Hurricane Andrew roared into South Florida in the pre-dawn hours of Monday, August 24, 1992. By all estimates, it was the worst disaster to ever hit South Florida and the third worst natural disaster in the history of the United States. Weeks after landfall, thousands of people remained homeless and the trauma of the relentless storm continues to haunt the minds and souls of every South Floridian.

Preparedness

The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) is uniquely situated to deal with hurricanes. As one of five water management districts in Florida, and the local sponsor of a Corps of Engineers water management project, the SFWMD traces its roots to a flood protection agency born of the hurricanes of the 1920s and '40s.

The SFWMD operates a water management project consisting of 1,400 miles of canals, 19 major pumping stations and hundreds of water control structures throughout central and southeastern Florida. The system is designed to lower surface water levels in response to threatening flood conditions and, conversely, convey water from surface reservoirs to recharge wellfields during times of water shortage.

As a water management agency, the SFWMD is intimately involved with hurricane preparedness. Although Florida has historically been the target of devastating hurricanes, it had been 22 years since the state had been severely tested with a "killer" storm. Yet, given recent hurricanes experiences in Texas and South Carolina, the SFWMD had long recognized the need to fortify its emergency response capabilities in the event of a major storm.

Since the mid 1980s, the SFWMD has taken measures to prepare for the inevitable hurricane. An infrastructure-intense program to repower area pump stations and reconstruct aging coastal water control structures in southeastern Florida has proven critical to the agency's ability to manage water during severe storms. In addition, the SFWMD has invested in a regionwide telemetry system that enables it to gather real-time data on water levels and resource conditions and, more importantly, to manipulate water control structures by remote control. Finally, the SFWMD has assembled a first-rate meteorological team and weather predictive capabilities. This resource is essential to operations in South Florida where weather conditions can vary dramatically within a relatively short distance.

On the morning of Wednesday, August 19, 1992, SFWMD staff were closely monitoring the development of a tropical depression in the eastern Atlantic. Given the SFWMD's monitoring stations and meteorological capacity, the agency was able to engage in real-time tracking of Hurricane Andrew (even when the National Hurricane Center experienced damage during the storm), make the earliest and most accurate description of the hurricane's storm surge, and report that information to the National Weather Service.

Andrew Roars In

Perhaps the most telling characteristic of Hurricane Andrew was the speed with which it developed. On Friday morning, August 21, SFWMD staff convened to review storm conditions. Based on every reasonable forecast, the storm was predicted to reach only Category 1 hurricane status by the following Monday morning with a position predicted at 200 miles offshore from the mainland. But Andrew had a mind of its own; it gathered extraordinary strength over the weekend of August 22-23. Seeing these strengthening conditions, SFWMD staff took immediate action: all coastal canals throughout southeastern Florida were lowered in anticipation of heavy rains and storm surges. Emergency procurements were activated. Payrolls were produced and transmitted to banks early on Saturday instead of the usual Monday.

Full hurricane emergency procedures went into effect on Sunday, August 23, wherein all essential operations and other emergency staff went onto 24-hour duty at field stations and agency headquarters. Coastal structures were put on hurricane operational mode: gates were locked open and generators were shut down to maximize discharge capabilities in the event of power outages.

By nightfall Sunday, it was apparent that the storm was going to reach Category 3 or 4 strength with landfall in the southern Dade County/Homestead region. Based on these predictions, the SFWMD's Homestead Field Station was, as part of standard hurricane procedures, evacuated to a safe-site--Pump Station 331--far from the coast.

These hurricane procedures, the SFWMD's blueprint for emergency preparedness, also set in motion a flurry of activity at SFWMD headquarters in West Palm Beach, some 75 miles north of hurricane landfall, and at SFWMD field stations throughout central and south Florida. Operations, meteorological, administrative, communications, public affairs and executive staff all went on 24-hour duty on Sunday morning when it became apparent that the hurricane would hit within a 150-mile radius of SFWMD boundaries. Accommodations also were made to house media representatives overnight at the SFWMD headquarters during the storm so that immediate information could be made available to the press regarding storm conditions and SFWMD operations.

By the time of SFWMD headquarters' first staff briefing at 6 a.m. Monday, the killer storm already had passed through southern Dade County, wreaking unprecedented havoc throughout a more than 400-square mile area. Whole towns and neighborhoods were reduced to rubble by sustained winds documented at speeds up to 175 miles per hour. Hurricane Andrew had behaved like a 25- to 30-square mile tornado.

What did this mean to the South Florida Water Management District? Andrew proved to be a very fast-moving, dry hurricane, and the SFWMD was able to fly early aerial reconnaissance of the disaster-stricken region only four hours after the storm had passed. The storm dropped only about four to six inches of rain, which meant that flooding was not a problem. The wind, however, had blown tons of debris and downed vegetation into the SFWMD's flood control canals, in some instances rendering them totally incapable of conveying water flows.

The South Florida Water Management District did not go unscathed. The worst hit was the evacuation site--Pump Station 331--where, at the height of the hurricane's 170 + miles-per-hour winds, a wall-sized utility door was blown out, trapping 44 Homestead Field Station personnel in what amounted to a tornado-strength wind tunnel. None of these staff members was seriously injured, but many, returning to their homes later in the day, found them totally demolished. Twenty-two SFWMD families were left homeless.

The SFWMD also suffered important infrastructure damage. The Homestead Field Station, sustaining close to $300,000 damage, fared better than the evacuation pump station. At least five coastal structures were damaged and required immediate repair; one of these structures was completely overtopped by a 17-foot storm surge in Biscayne Bay. Several pump stations used primarily for water deliveries to Everglades National Park had been rendered minimally operational. It is anticipated that the Army Corps of Engineers will provide for repair of these facilities through its disaster rehabilitation program.

Recovery

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, the most pressing issue for the South Florida Water Management District was the clearing and recovery of its canals. Trees with extremely shallow root systems had easily toppled into the hundreds of miles of canals in Dade County, causing immediate threats of potential flooding. The first order of business was to mobilize SFWMD field personnel from throughout South Florida, bring in contractors from across the country and accept the assistance of crews from the state's other water management districts to begin the task of removing and disposing of trees and debris from SFWMD canals and rights-of-way. More than $2 million had been spent by the end of September on this labor-intensive and costly undertaking. Weeks and months of additional work will be needed.

No less important has been the agency's effort to address the human needs associated with the storm. Most critical were the needs of families. Just as operations personnel were mobilized within hours of the hurricane passing, so too were the SFWMD's administrative support staff, who were charged with assisting those employees whose lives were disrupted by the storm. Immediate needs included getting food, water and supplies to the Homestead and Miami Field Stations from the West Palm Beach headquarters. Supplies were trucked daily from the SFWMD's central stores warehouse to the storm-torn areas, where "mini-marts" were set up in field station conference rooms so that employees and their families could select needed items.

The SFWMD also arranged immediate and ongoing counseling services through the agency's Employee Assistance Program. Traumatized employees and their families were able to receive this assistance, as well as medical attention on site at the area field stations. A counseling hotline also has been established so that counseling services continue to be within reach.

Of the 22 SFWMD families who lost homes, most organized living arrangements with friends or relatives. The SFWMD assisted several families in finding lodging. It also established an emergency relief account to collect monetary contributions to provide additional relief to its families or to be used eventually for rebuilding their homes.

While the South Florida Water Management District's first priority with respect to humanitarian aid was employees and their families, the SFWMD's assistance extended to the community at large. SFWMD aircraft and helicopters flew 38 missions to take medical teams and supplies to impacted areas and made many other flights to bring supplies and officials to the South Dade region. In all, 800 flight hours were logged to support hurricane recovery efforts. In some instances, the SFWMD was the first agency to bring aid to "hard to reach" locales such as an Indian reservation and area migrant camps.

Coordination

One of the main factors in the South Florida Water Management District's ability to respond quickly and effectively to the crisis of Hurricane Andrew was the extensive emergency coordination and communication linkages that had been planned. SFWMD governmental representatives were stationed before, during and after the storm at emergency operations centers in Tallahassee and Dade County. These staff members were in frequent telephone contact with SFWMD headquarters and field operations, interactions that kept information flowing and helped to minimize rumors and speculation.

Strong linkages also were maintained with the media. Several reporters were stationed at SFWMD headquarters during the storm. In the aftermath, press releases and daily information bulletins were distributed to the media and other government officials. These bulletins reported up-to-the-minute information on SFWMD operations, status of structural damage, coordination/communication activities, environmental damage assessments and humanitarian aid efforts.

The SFWMD was able to respond to requests for assistance from other governmental entities by providing aerial tours for state and federal officials, organizing publicity about the need for water conservation in areas where service was interrupted or water main pressure was reduced, posting canal signage to warn against drinking or bathing and providing staff support for the state's main staging and distribution center in Palm Beach County.

Financial Support

Hurricane Andrew touched all areas of the South Florida Water Management District's finance department: procurement, budget, accounts payable, payroll, accounting, treasury and systems. All were involved in providing timely support to the SFWMD's preparedness or recovery tasks.

Preparedness included both financial and administrative fortifications. The SFWMD had appropriated emergency reserves in place along with emergency budgetary and procurement authority. Prearranged agreements with contractors and suppliers for emergency services and supplies made it possible to respond immediately when SFWMD staff realized the storm was going to hit. SFWMD crews were mobilized over the weekend prior to the storm; likewise were SFWMD contractors and suppliers.

The finance department had the foresight to process the biweekly payroll, print payroll checks and transmit direct deposits to banks over the weekend. Otherwise, Andrew would have delayed the usual Monday processing and Wednesday distribution of payroll. When payday arrived on Wednesday, many employees were without means to get to their bank, at a time when they needed money the most. Many bank branches were completely destroyed. Finance officials responded by arranging with SFWMD's bank in West Palm Beach to provide a large amount of cash for staff to transport to the devastated area, enabling the SFWMD to set up on-site paymaster services for its employees who needed to cash their checks.

Providing and accounting for the cost of clean-up, repair and future damage mitigation is extensive. The SFWMD's emergency reserves did not approach the nearly 10 percent of annual budget that was the early cost estimate of the damage. Fortunately, the damaged area was declared a major disaster by the President, thus qualifying the SFWMD for federal assistance.

Federal assistance for disaster recovery comes in the form of reimbursement for well-documented costs, and the documentation must be in accordance with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Unless a recipient has direct experience and knowledge of FEMA requirements it may find itself many weeks into the recovery process before guidelines, systems and procedures are put in place to properly document disaster-related expenditures. By that time, many reimbursable dollars may have been lost.

Disaster recovery documentation is a matter in which the SFWMD was reasonably, but not fully, prepared. Staff had general knowledge of FEMA guidelines in the emergency preparedness procedures plus an accounting system that could readily meet the necessary accounting structure. It had no direct experiences with FEMA requirements, however. The following article on documenting disaster recovery costs details these FEMA requirements.

South Florida Water Management District staff responded quickly with the aid of a consultant. Supplementary accounts required by FEMA to categorize expenditures by location, type and object were identified, established in the SFWMD's accounting system and communicated to staff within 72 hours after Andrew passed through South Florida. As a result, staff were able to record all related payroll, supply and contractual costs on a current real-time basis.

At best, the federal disaster assistance process is confusing. It is not a full-time effort of most federal staff in the field at emergency sites. Rather, they are "reservists" called up for duty that may be as unfamiliar to them as it is to the assistance recipients. The continuing pursuit of federal aid to reimburse the SFWMD for expenses associated with Andrew will require the full-time attention of many SFWMD staff, outside expert assistance and intergovernmental coordination.

Lessons Learned

Hurricane Andrew has proven to be a costly lesson for Florida and a terrible reminder of a hurricane's power to devastate and destroy. While the South Florida Water Management District was spared a worst-case scenario (such as a wet, slow-moving storm that would have caused extensive flooding), the SFWMD was nonetheless tested in its ability to respond to a crisis situation.

A South Florida Water Management District task force will scrutinize performance throughout this event and determine what went right, what went wrong and where improvements need to be made. At first glance, it is apparent that SFWMD facilities--particularly field stations which are fully manned and operational during a storm--need to be better fortified to provide a safe haven for those on duty.

Equally important is the need for a full-time emergency operations coordinator for the SFWMD. Presently, an interdepartmental task force is automatically convened to implement and coordinate emergency procedures. While this has worked well, it is clear that a staff member with emergency preparedness expertise needs to be assigned or hired on a year-round basis to make certain that all aspects of crisis management be fine tuned and ever ready.

Beyond an internal review, the South Florida Water Management District looks forward to participating in Florida's statewide analysis of Hurricane Andrew. While there are many things to be proud of and thankful for with respect to how Florida responded to the storm, Andrew is a grim reminder that this state can never become complacent about the destructive power of a hurricane.

SFWMD

The South Florida Water Management District is one of five regional water management agencies in Florida responsible for flood protection, water supply, environmental enhancement and water quality protection. The district covers an area twice the size of New Jersey--approximately 18,000 square miles--from Orlando in the north through the Florida Keys. The South Florida Water Management District also is responsible for operating and maintaining one of the most complex water management systems in the nation: the Central & Southern Florida Flood Control Project.

The system was built by the United States Army Corps of Engineers from the 1950s through the 1970s in order to protect south Florida from the ravages of hurricane and drought.

CATHY ANCLADE is director of government public affairs for the South Florida Water Management District and E. BARRETT ATWOOD is finance director. Atwood has served since 1991 as chair of GFOA's Committee on Accounting, Auditing and Financial Reporting.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Government Finance Officers Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:South Florida Water Management District
Author:Anclade, Cathy; Atwood, E. Barrett, Sr.
Publication:Government Finance Review
Date:Dec 1, 1992
Words:2759
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