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Commissioners hear hurricane preparedness measures

Mark Parker

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Joe Borries, operations manager for the county’s emergency management department, led the hurricane season kickoff presentation at Tuesday's commission meeting. Screengrab.

With the hurricane season underway, new evacuation zones impacting nearly 93,000 people, and residents keeping a close eye on a tropical disturbance in the gulf last week, Pinellas Commissioners heard the county’s official 2022 preparedness update.

Joe Borries, operations manager for the county’s emergency management department, led the hurricane season kickoff presentation at Tuesday’s commission meeting. One of the most significant updates was the changes to evacuation zones, which Borries said resulted from the National Hurricane Center updating its storm surge and flood risk models.

“They do that for every category of storm, and they provide those files to us,” explained Borries.

Once the county receives the file, the emergency management department applies it over a parcel grid and ascertains the highest risk for each location. Borries said officials use a geographic information system (GIS) programmatic process designed for over 400,000 parcels to determine the appropriate evacuation levels.

Borries said the maps must then pass the eye test. He explained that a property is automatically an A-level evacuation if connected by a bridge due to the risk factor. He said his department also looks for “donuts,” or houses surrounded by lower-lying areas that might become isolated and surrounded by water.

“So, we’ll make some adjustments there as well,” he said. “When we completed that process, we found that over 47,000 parcel locations did change evacuation levels.”

While most of those areas went to a higher risk level, Borries said 13,000 parcels saw a reduction in the threat assessment. He said the county sent a postcard to all 47,000 households affected by the changes, but officials continue to urge residents to check the Pinellas storm website for updates.

The updated evacuation zones impact nearly 93,000 residents.

Borries said the county focused on training and preparedness exercises with its community partners, including over 180 on managing a storm shelter. He added that during the annual hurricane exercise, held at the end of April, his department conducted a “deeper dive” into the communications and tested the capabilities of the new rapid deployable communications units that the commission supported.

“And what we did with that, we called all of our municipalities that are alternative EOCs (emergency operations centers),” said Borries. “We also called the state watch office in Tallahassee, just to mimic real-world limited communication capabilities to make sure we can get through in times of disaster.

“I’m proud to say it was 100% successful.”

Borries told commissioners that the county needs more shelter space. He said his department continues to work with schools and community partners to acquire more space and is also working with the state to assess other facilities Pinellas could use in an emergency.

Commissioner Renee Flowers noted that space requirements changed during the pandemic and asked if shelters were returning to maximum capacity. Borries said the county is returning to an allotment of 20 square feet per person.

“If we start to see little pain points of getting people in there, we may have to go to 15 square-foot,” he said. “We think we could accommodate everybody; it may get a little tight but remember, it’s just for that time where the storm is coming overhead that is the most critical.”

Borries added that new developments are coming to St. Petersburg, St. Pete Beach and Tarpon Springs – and the influx of more people creates a challenge for emergency management officials to provide adequate shelter space.

Just last week, said Borries, the county held a local law enforcement workshop to discuss responsibilities and preparation in which every agency participated.

In addition, the county trained 230 users on the situational awareness software employed by the Pinellas EOC and over 170 damage-adjustment field crews from area municipalities, the property appraiser’s office and the building and development services department on the Esri Field Maps application.

“We’ve coordinated with and trained over 100 special needs task team members on our special needs program, and our updated special needs application is coming out this hurricane season,” said Borries. “We had over 60 healthcare facilities participate in our comprehensive emergency management plan training – that’s a statutory requirement for those facilities to have those plans available …”

Borries told commissioners the county received a $50,000 grant from the state to provide at-risk residents with over 900 solar-powered weather radios. The radios come equipped with USB charging ports so people can power electronic devices in during an outage.

Keeping cell phones running ensures residents can call for help in emergencies and allows access to the new Ready Pinellas mobile application. The app provides real-time, integrated information from Alert Pinellas and the National Weather Service.

Borries said the app uses location services to pinpoint a resident’s evacuation zone and provide orders to evacuate. It also offers a “see, click, fix” function that allows users to take pictures of damages and send them to emergency officials. Borries said over 800 residents downloaded the new app.

Borries concluded by calling the county’s first hurricane expo since Covid, held June 4 at the Lealman Exchange, a resounding success. He said over 300 people attended the event, and officials gave out over 240 hurricane hygiene kits”

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