Living in a State of Readiness: Hurricane Season in Florida

by Kathy Danforth

The standard Florida forecast of sun is facing its annual potential interruption by extreme wind and water events. Being spared a major hurricane for a period of years, plus the reading of statistics and probabilities with a little weariness thrown in, can lull associations and homeowners into thinking, “Sure, I’m still ready.” However, if you are in the hurricane’s path, you may have to deal with a full-force storm—before, during, and after—and that means that preparation must be 100 percent each year. The consolation that statistically it is unlikely that you will have to deal with devastation each year, unfortunately, will not diminish the effects when a tropical cyclone does hit.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has recorded patterns over the last century, which give us the advantage of seeing the big picture. For the Atlantic Basin, the peak of hurricane season is mid-August until late October. The estimated return period of a category three or greater hurricane is highest, at five to seven years, for most of South Florida. The northeast coast of the state and the northeast coast of the Panhandle can expect to see the least frequent coastal landfalls, averaging 12–16 years apart.

Using this year’s conditions with modeling developed from prior years’ data, Colorado State University meteorologists, in April, issued their prognostication for this coming season (with updates available June 3 and August 2 at hurricane.atmos.colostate.edu/Forecasts). “We anticipate an above average Atlantic basin hurricane season due to the combination of an anomalously warm tropical Atlantic and a relatively low likelihood of El Niño,” concludes Philip Klotzback and William Gray. The probability for at least one major hurricane rated category three or higher reaching land is predicted to be 48 percent for the U.S. East Coast, including the Florida peninsula, compared to an average chance of 31 percent over the last 100 years. The chance of a major hurricane making landfall on the Gulf Coast from the Panhandle to Brownsville is 47 percent, compared to a 30-percent average chance. The probability for hurricane landfall by county is available at www.e-transit.org/hurricane/welcome.html by following the first listed link and selecting your county. While probabilities are dealing with the uncertainty in when a hurricane will come, the certainty is that preparation is essential.

The hazards presented by a hurricane include storm surge, inland flooding, sustained high winds, tornadoes, and rip currents…occurring primarily in a downpour. Storm surge can combine with high tide to raise water levels by 20 feet, and with the pounding wave action can be the most destructive part of a storm. Multiple variables determine how the wind and pressure build storm surge, but the relatively shallow continental shelf off the Louisiana shoreline contributed to the 25–28 foot water levels brought about by Katrina in that deadly 2005 storm. Inland flooding is highly variable depending on storm size and movement, as well as rate of rainfall and other conditions, making a lack of flooding in the past no guarantee that a site is immune. A majority of hurricanes also spawn at least one tornado, in addition to the pummeling winds that are expected.

With these prospects, looking at the possible end results can help a community decide what policies, requirements, and preparation they want in place to prevent damage and facilitate recovery. How can water and wind damage be minimized? If buildings are damaged, utilities are out, roads are impassable, water has risen, and general assistance is unlikely, if not impossible, because everyone is also in distress, how will residents live, communicate, and rebuild? Boards are responsible for the common areas and matters of mutual concern and find that their guidance is vital to all members of the community, especially those with special needs.

A Community Emergency Response Team is a huge asset in planning, preparing, and responding to a disaster such as a hurricane. Training usually includes seven sessions, one evening per week, addressing disaster preparedness, fire suppression, medical response (two parts), light search and rescue, disaster psychology and team organization, and a concluding course review and disaster simulation. The concept of training civilians to meet immediate needs was introduced by the Los Angeles Fire Department in 1985. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) explains, “Following a major disaster, first responders who provide fire and medical services will not be able to meet the demand for these services. Factors such as number of victims, communication failures, and road blockages will prevent people from accessing emergency services they have come to expect at a moment’s notice through 911. People will have to rely on each other for help in order to meet their immediate life-saving and life-sustaining needs.”

Pre-hurricane season events will include many of the following:

Plan for people: Obtain keys to units, secure contact information for updates and ensuring owners are safe, and identify vulnerable persons who may need assistance in evacuation.

Evacuation: Determine emergency shelters and evacuation routes, taking into account changes, roadwork, and the increase in traffic. Identify where pets may go.

Grounds: Trim landscaping to minimize wind damage. Ensure pumps and drainage are in good condition.

Power: Obtain or check generator if you will want that capability to recharge phones, run computers, and run water removal operations before power is restored. Stock fuel, as degraded fuel can damage equipment, and determine if you have a supplier that has their own generator and will be operational when needed.

Insurance: Review your policy and photograph or video the property with date identification. Let all residents know that they should maintain all receipts for any additional living expenses to include in an insurance claim.

Records: Secure all important papers/copies in waterproof containers off site. This will include financial records, employee records, insurance policies, all association-related documents, contact information for residents and all vendors, and contracts. Computer records should have hard drive back-up.

Finances: Establish a line of credit or emergency reserves to begin remediation before insurance funds are available. Checks should be available to use if banks or credit systems are not functional.

Restoration contracts: Establish contracts for significant anticipated needs. The need will be urgent, the contractors busy, and scammers or inexperienced opportunists on the move. Kia Ricchi, aka the contractress, advises, “Ideally, managers should work with contractors who are familiar with their buildings. To respond effectively after a disaster, these parties should have a response plan that details how the systems—electric, HVAC, etc.—will be brought back online and in what order. The plan should also address how the parties will communicate after a disaster. Once all the details are ironed out, the parties may want to draft and sign a maintenance agreement, which provides for (a) response time to outages, (b) clear identification of overtime and emergency service billing costs, and (c) overall mission to keep service interruption to a minimum.”

Develop plans for preparation: Identify and assign tasks and a timeline to prepare the property. Everyone, including employees, will have personal responsibilities to attend to as well as association concerns. Community Advocacy Network (CAN) guidelines (www.canfl.com/documents/KGBHG2011.pdf) advise, “If the association has employees, the association’s policies and procedures with regard to those employees’ duties regarding storm preparation and storm clean-up need to be reviewed with legal counsel to ensure compliance with all local and federal ordinances.” Plans should include securing items, which could become airborne, shutters and window protection, diagrams of all utility shut-off points, etc., plus final clearing of gutters, adjustment of any water levels if applicable, and clearing/marking of drains. Note any changes from previous years: does the new pool furniture actually fit in the old location? Are there new employees, new equipment, or any residents/employees that are no longer serving that adjustments need to be made for? Residents should develop plans for their responsibilities.

Emergency Supplies: Prepare a list and gather or re-stock supplies using emergency kit lists as a basis. Sources such as www.ready.gov/basic-disaster-supplies-kit or the Hurricane Survival Guide at www.pbcgov.com/dem/hurricane/ can prod one’s memory. General needs will be food—non-perishable, with necessary opening/serving gadgetry—water for consumption and sanitation, communication items, vital paperwork, money, first aid supplies and medicines, clothing, bedding, tools, personal hygiene items—including moist towelettes—cleaning supplies, flashlight with batteries, and special supplies for pets or children. If you stockpile your emergency supplies, verify that no one has absconded with the batteries or desirable food items during the year, and replenish any food, fuel, etc. that have passed their expiration date. The question as to what happens after the “Best By” date is best saved for another time—though except for infant formula, quality rather than safety is generally the issue.

As a storm begins its approach, the time to implement personal and community preparation kicks in—recharging of electronics, filling gas tanks, laundry, filling the bathtub with water, setting refrigeration to the lowest setting, and other tasks. No one wants to waste time doing and undoing jobs, but to prepare and evacuate in a timely manner, starting early is essential. Roads will fill, store shelves will empty, and others will be pre-occupied with their own concerns.

After the storm, the first matter of business is attending to people: ascertaining their location and attending to any injured or needy. Damage should be documented by photographs and video prior to any remediation. Prevent further damage from water, erosion, mold growth, or looting as much as possible; this is where the keys to all homes are a must.

CAN advises, “The Florida Legislature wisely recognized that volunteer boards could benefit from some guidance and the relaxing of certain procedures in order to better handle a storm situation. Unfortunately, those ‘emergency powers’ were conferred only to condominium boards and not HOA boards.” Section 718.1265 of the Condominium Act provides for variation from normal procedures in response to damage caused by an event for which the Governor has declared a state of emergency.

CAN advises, “Before making arrangements to remove storm debris other than life threatening or access obstructing, contact your city to see what plan of action it has for debris removal.”

However, Donna Berger, Esquire, Executive Director of CAN, has seen that associations may not receive equitable support. She notes, “While we fought with FEMA over its failure to assist community associations dealing with debris and other damages after Wilma, Sandy has proven that FEMA still has not received the message that people living in shared ownership communities should be as entitled to federal disaster relief as their neighbors living outside of associations. It is shameful that FEMA continues to make this harmful distinction in terms of who gets their help and who does not.”

As repair priorities are set and communication with residents and contractors proceeds, it is important to contact your attorney and insurance agent. CAN advises, “Resist the natural urge to use a public adjuster to shepherd your claim without first discussing advantages and disadvantages with legal counsel.” Contracts, releases, and financing should all be reviewed by your lawyer despite the urgent situation.

CAN guidelines also caution, “Be aware that most damage is not apparent to the eye or to anyone other than trained experts…[who] should be consulted to determine the extent of battering your community suffered.”

Berger observes, “Complacency is an enemy of effective preparation and successful recovery.” Let this hurricane season once again be a time to prepare more, and repair and regret less.

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