Tampa first responders are geared up for hurricane season

05/31/13 Janelle Irwin
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Hurricane season starts tomorrow and it’s expected to be a busy one. Hurricane experts and emergency responders will educate Tampa Bay area residents on how to stay safe when a storm threatens during a hurricane expo Saturday.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts there will be as many as 11 hurricanes this season. Emergency management crews are planning ahead.

“Worst-case scenario would be a tropical storm or a major hurricane making landfall just north of Tampa Bay and that would force a lot of water to circulate right into Tampa Bay and inundate downtown Tampa.”

That’s Brian LaMarre, the meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service in Ruskin. Hurricanes pack more than just strong winds and massive rainfall. LaMarre says severe weather resulting from tropical systems can also spawn deadly tornadoes.

“We had one fatality in Highlands County when a woman was killed in her home when a tornado impacted that area.”

But Roy Paz with the Tampa Police Department’s special incident management unit says the biggest threat is storm surge.

“Because that water comes in and it is devastating. It comes in very quickly, very violently and it takes everything away with it.”

Evacuation zones are split into five categories and people in those zones are told to head to higher ground based on their likelihood to flood. But because it has been almost ten years since Florida was directly hit by a hurricane, public complacency has become a problem for officials when evacuation orders are issued. Paz says even though it may be tempting to hunker down during a storm, that decision could cost people their lives.

“When they make these decisions, we want folks to take them as serious as possible because they don’t make those decisions lightly. They know that when you evacuate, you disrupt people’s lives – you’ve got to pick up, businesses shut down, all those things like that.”

Paz adds evacuating doesn’t have to be a major inconvenience.

“You don’t have to drive all the way to another state or another city; we just want folks to evacuate out of the surge zone areas.”

When a storm does hit – and experts say that’s a question of when, not if – first responders are ready. The Tampa Police Department has an amphibious military vehicle they can use for search and rescue operations.

“It looks like a tank, sort of – not a tank with a gun on it, but it’s a really neat looking vehicle, very heavy – very heavy duty as a matter of fact – and our tactical response team uses this on a routine basis for high risk situations such as search warrants or if we’ve got a barricaded suspect or something like that.”

And the Tampa Fire Department has specially trained dogs to find people who may be trapped beneath collapsed houses or other debris. Rico Palomino is a Lieutenant with the agency. His dog is a black lab named Primer.

“Basically, he’s going to go in there and eliminate which buildings we have to totally go through and search. If there’s a building that collapsed, instead of us spending two hours searching a building, we’ll send him in there and within a matter of a couple minutes, we’ll know if there’s somebody alive in that building.”

Despite preparation and training, Governor Rick Scott is worried that across the board spending cuts known as the sequester could strain Florida’s readiness because nearly 1,000 people in the National Guard will have to take furloughs during the summer. Bob Deans is director of federal communication for the Natural Resources Defense Council. In a phone interview Deans said other cuts could impact agencies that predict hurricanes.

“Money that would go to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to help monitor some of these things that we’ve been talking about, that’s been cut.”

But the National Weather Service’s LaMarre says so far, forecasters at the Ruskin office haven’t felt the squeeze.

“We’re here 24/7 and we plan to be here 24/7 through the hurricane season and we have almost 30 people that work around the clock at our office. So, anything that would impact us budget-wise would be decisions made well above our office level. But I think the main point to emphasize is that we are there 24/7 making sure that warnings and information get out to the public.”

The hurricane expo at MOSI is Saturday from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. Speakers include first responders, hurricane survivors and experts from the National Weather Service.

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