Marion County has been one of the fastest-growing areas in Florida for the past 15 to 20 years. Located in the north central part of the state, approximately 70 miles north of Orlando, we maintain 2900 miles of roads within a geographic area the size of Rhode Island. Our current population is about 300,000.

In 2004, four hurricanes made landfall in Florida. While not all of them impacted Marion County, we had the unusual misfortune of dealing with two of the storms in September—back-to-back. Both storms (Frances and Jeanne) were packing tropical storm force winds by the time they reached us, with gusts of hurricane strength (greater than 74 mph). The Marion County Public Works Bureau dealt with these events as they occurred and with the cleanup in the aftermath. Most of us had never experienced anything like this before. I have worked in Marion County for 28 years but, until now, had never encountered a natural disaster of this magnitude.

The Transportation and Solid Waste Departments of the Public Works Bureau were the lead agencies for the county cleanup effort. I hope by sharing our experience and the lessons learned, readers will be better prepared to respond to disasters in their own jurisdictions.

Preparation for the Storm

Having a good emergency management plan in place is critical, as are practice runs. Most local emergency management authorities have plans in place guiding policies and procedures they follow to address various disasters as they oversee the response and direct all activities from an Emergency Operations Center (EOC). However, public works operations that will assist during an event and then later deal with debris cleanup and other storm-related tasks may not have a plan for their department's specific role.

While our DOT had drafted a revised plan, it had not been adopted, so no rehearsals had taken place and the proposed plan did not go into much detail. Nevertheless, we implemented the draft plan as Hurricane Frances was threatening to make landfall.

Some of our proposed processes didn't work well or were just too cumbersome, given the chaos that transpired. Fortunately, our team worked well together with strong command and control leadership in place. Check-off lists worked well, identifying various tasks assigned to specific staff members. We checked tasks off the list as they were completed.

Another effective strategy was to stage first responder crews and equipment at several emergency shelters spread around the county. When the all clear was given that the storms had passed, these crews were able to start opening blocked roads immediately.

“Having been involved in emergency management for 15 years in Florida, I knew what the expectations might be in dealing with the storm events,” said Larry Thacker, public works bureau chief. “Although I had been in Marion County for less than six months, I witnessed teamwork and organizational logic from county personnel. My role became that of a facilitator/advisor, thus we managed this project with a great deal of proficiency that can only be described as a total cooperative team effort.”

Daily Meetings

We had daily meetings with our emergency services contractor and all key players from our organization along with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) representatives assigned to work at the local level. Occasionally, regional and state emergency management staff attended these meetings. Our experience showed that all department representatives with key roles in the management of the debris cleanup effort should be included from the start. These include the solid waste, transportation, code enforcement, finance, purchasing, and administration departments.

Thacker personally chaired each daily meeting and made sure he addressed all players' concerns. He also made sure we received daily, positive reinforcement from FEMA representatives for the way we were handling the cleanup process.