Every year around this time Flagler County Emergency Management Chief Jonathan Lord spends time with local elected bodies, media, civic groups and any assembly of note that’ll have him to speak about preparing for hurricane season, which begins today and runs through Nov. 1. This year he’s recast some of his most essential messaging in language he hopes the smart-phone generation will grasp: “Be prepared to stay off the grid.”
It’s not just about getting a disaster kit ready, though that’s certainly essential. It’s preparing it in such a way that it takes in account the possibility of being entirely without electricity for a week–as was the case for the majority of Flagler County for almost that long in the aftermaths of Hurricanes Matthew in 2016 and Irma in 2017.
It also means being prepared to go without running water for up to a week. It’s important to have seven days’ supply of food, medication (don’t wait to refill your prescription the night the hurricane prediction cone approaches Flagler), drinking water, candles and flashlights. But off the grid also means preparing your non-electronic entertainment options. “I know that’ll make my son cry,” Lord says of his 12 year old.
“Entertainment that doesn’t involve having to plug it in is super important,” Lord says. “We had the Boy Scouts here a couple of months ago in the evening, we were doing a little preparedness thing to get a preparedness patch. So I talked to them about a bunch of preparedness things, and they’re like, oh, I don’t have to worry about that. I’ll just use my phone.” The idea of being without wifi for a week takes a while to sink in, for younger people especially. This is when the old fashioned book comes in handy, as a substitute for phones. “Not on a Kindle that needs to be charged or the internet, but old fashion–and our librarian would probably love me for saying this–having old fashioned hardbacks or paper books,” Lord says. You might rediscover page-turning joys.
You might even be able to listen to music while reading, as long as you excavate that old AM/FM radio from the attic, which is also an essential part of any disaster-preparation kit. Those radios use up very little battery power, they help you stay abreast of emergency news when without power, and Flagler County has its own radio network in Flagler Broadcasting, which during hurricanes partners with emergency management to disseminate information, especially for those who cannot access online news sources like this one.
Floridians can also buy numerous hurricane preparation items tax free until June 10. See the list of eligible items here.
Naturally, people in emergency management like Lord–or anyone who has to prepare for a disaster, really, which means every Floridian–hopes the preparation is for naught, as has been the case for the last several years: since Irma in 2017, when that storm reached the area as a tropical storm and knocked out trees and power, Flagler County has been spared. Hurricane Dorian caused a serious scare in September 2019, all the way to the declaration of a curfew in parts of the county, but in the end Dorian pulled a Matthew, veering off the coast just in time.
At his briefing today at the Emergency Operations Center, Lord spoke with some of the overhead screens showing a developing tropical disturbance over the Yucatan Peninsula. The National Hurricane Center was giving the blob an 70 percent chance of transfiguring into a tropical storm over the next 48 hours, with the Florida peninsula in its a trajectory. If that happens, it would become Tropical Storm Alex, the first of this season’s 21 name-readied storms.
The names are prepared each year by the Hurricane Center. Last year’s season ran through the list. Some 14 to 21 are in the forecast this year, making it a busier-than-normal hurricane season for the seventh straight year. Of those, six to 10 storms are expected to become hurricanes, and three to six may become major hurricanes, or Category 3 and above.
A Category 1 hurricane has sustained winds of 74 to 95 mph, enough to tear off roof shingles, down trees and limbs and power lines, but not destroy homes. Cat 3 is between 111 and 129 mph, enough to demolish residential and commercial buildings and and Cat 5 is 157 mph and above. We’re already into catastrophic damage territory with Cat 4, and Cat 5 is a storm’s equivalent of carpet-bombing. Nothing survives upright.
Lord isn’t big on focusing on predictions. “We could have the quietest season ever. And if that one storm comes here, then it could be potentially devastating to our community,” he said. “Or we could have the busiest season ever, a record setting season, and if none of them come here, then I’m a happy emergency managers–not happy for somebody else who got them, but I’m happy for our community.”
Three factors are not helping the situation this year: first, a warmer climate overall, which has been warming the oceans. Hurricanes get their fuel from warmer waters. (Last year was the fourth-warmest on record in the United States, and 2020 saw the warmest Atlantic waters on record). Second, La Nina, the Pacific weather pattern, is in effect, reducing wind shear on this side of the globe, which means less wind action to break up building hurricanes. Third, the loop current, a warm-water current that juts into the Gulf of Mexico and was responsible for suddenly powering up Hurricane Katrina in 2005, is back, and may have the same effect on building storms–turning medium hurricanes into major hurricanes very quickly.
On the other hand, Saharan dust storms are thickening the atmosphere over West Africa and the Atlantic, interfering with storms’ ability to build. But dust storms dissipate.
Also on the plus side, overall preparedness has changed for the better since the days of Matthew and Irma. Florida Power and Light has improved its power grid with more solid power lines. The county has a modernized emergency communications system with numerous built-in redundancies, so if there is a failure in one spot the rest of the network can pick up the slack. And Palm Coast and the county have seen an upsurge in new cell towers, which means going without cell service for days on end is less likely if the county is struck with tropical-storm-type storms, as was the case in 2016 and 2017.
Emergency management continues to emphasize sheltering in place as opposed to evacuating in most instances, except for low-lying areas that are prone to flooding. Storm-surge data is now a lot more precise than it was a few years ago. That gives emergency management the ability to pinpoint which areas must evacuate and which don’t need to, down to the neighborhood level. The famous hurricane or tropical storm cone of probability has also seen some improvements. It will now be narrower, Lord said, reflecting improvements in forecasting capabilities. But it will still not be able to predict as accurately if and when a storm will suddenly pick up velocity.
Locally, the county can now depend on a half dozen weather stations, including on the Hammock Dunes bridge, that will enable more pinpointed reports during storms, enabling emergency management to better coordinate with first responders whether a certain area of the county is safe to patrol or conduct search-and-rescue operations in, or not.
Should evacuations become necessary, the county, in association with the Department of health and Flagler County schools, will open shelters, starting (most likely) with Bunnell Elementary and Wadsworth-Buddy Taylor as general population shelters, and Rymfire Elementary as a special needs shelter, with medical personnel on hand.
A new law prevents emergency orders that restrict personal freedoms from extending past the seven-day mark. The law could’ve had an undesirable effect on, say, the need to close off a portion of the county should it be particularly devastated (like the barrier island). But Lord said the law also has a carve out for hurricane emergencies, so restrictive orders can be extended beyond seven days.
Internally, Lord spoke highly of his relationship with County Administrator Heidi Petito, and with other local governments, underscoring a prevailing sense of cooperation rather than competition between agencies and governments.
That, in any case, is what residents expect: “At the end of the day when someone calls 911 or looks to the county for assistance in something as big as a disaster,” Lord said, “and they are able to tell us ‘we need help,’ I don’t think a single resident cares what the side of that truck says or the side of that car says or what this shirt says. They just know, I pay taxes to the government. This is my greatest time of need. The government needs to be there. And it’s I think our job collectively in this room is to bring people together collectively, to just take care of the residents.”
He spoke in the Emergency Operations Center’s nerve center, a very large room that can accommodate upwards of 70 people from some 50 agencies, all of whom could find themselves in the room if EOC were fully activated in an emergency, cooperating by necessity. Lord, a consensus builder by nature, welcomes and thrives on the cooperation. He just hopes EOC will not have to be so activated.