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Putnam hosts hurricane roundtable
June 13, 2018

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It seems the theme of this year's hurricane season across Southwest Florida has been preparedness.

Planning, knowing the right information and being ready for the unpredictable have been discussed among Lee County officials in prelude to the June 1 date.

Florida's Commissioner of Agriculture, Adam Putnam, hosted a hurricane preparedness roundtable Wednesday at the Lee County Administration East Building in Fort Myers, to meet with several Lee County brass to have an open discussion to share concerns and issues just six days into the season.

"The reason I wanted to come down here is because you're the best," Putnam praised.

"Lee County is an award-winning county, with an award winning emergency planning manager," he said of Lee County Emergency Management Chief Lee Mayfield and all the work he and his team has done for the area, especially during Irma.

Mayfield, who was presented the Chad Reed Emergency Manager of the Year award in March was in attendance, as well as state Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, state Rep. Dane Eagle, Lee County Undersheriff Carmine Marceno and Lee County District 2 Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass to name a few.

Each of the 11 officials in attendance had a chance to voice their opinions on the upcoming season.

Lee County also accepted the 2018 National Hurricane Conference Outstanding Achievement Award at the NHC Conference, being recognized as the model for other organizations in its handling of hurricane-related activities.

"It's nice to be here to plan for the possibility of an active hurricane season, rather than being back down here in recovery mode," Putnam added.

The commissioner of agriculture, who is also running for governor in this fall's elections, was all ears during the meeting.

"I want to talk about lessons learned a candid evaluation of where the gaps were and what needs to be filled as we think about the upcoming season. Also, any other issues you think are important for as seamless a coordination we can possibly have between municipal, county, state and federal agencies. Whether it's on awareness and preparedness, sheltering and evacuations, whatever it may be," he said to the rest of the panel.

"I know there are unresolved issues and that communities are hurting. Folks are still waiting to hear from an insurance company or contractors and the new hurricane year is already upon us. We all know first hand that Florida can be feast or famine," said Putnam, referring to the quick and drastic changes between wet and dry seasons.

A hot-button topic at the round table was sheltering.

Last year, Lee County had the largest sheltering in all of Florida, with more than 35,000 people filling facilities.

"That is not a normal scenario," said Mayfield of the large number of residents who came to shelters last fall in advance of Hurricane Irma.

Revisions of sheltering included looking to add alternative locations other than schools, hardening the shelters with impact glass, adding generators and increasing square-footage.

Special needs shelters were specifically discussed, with 73 percent of residents with special needs not pre-registered to a shelter that can accommodate their specialities.

Benacquisto also brought attention to the depletion of sleeping space for staff of these shelters, including first responders, noting first hand she and Eagle offered their space to others they felt needed it more when they stayed at a shelter during Irma.

"It's a priority to work on our sheltering issues," Mayfield said. "We are urging people to have a plan in place to stay at a relatives or friends outside of an evacuation zone, instead of coming to a shelter."

Another issue the group discussed was the shelf-life on preparedness across the county.

For how long do residents stay on their toes about hurricane season?

Do they shrug it off if they were not affected as bad as others?

"If you just lost your power...maybe had some debris in your yard, those memories pass. If Irma destroyed your house or left serious damages, you're more inclined to take precautions," said Eagle.

It's a continuous message in preparednessbefore, during and after a storm that leads to success.

"We will continuously reinforce the message," added Mayfield.

Putnam was intently listening to what the officials had to say about each concern they had, while jotting down notes and asking questions from time to time.

"It's great to bring the community around a common sense of purpose, despite bad events," he said.

"The sense of community throughout all the counties is powerful to see."

Benacquisto also noted a group that may have gotten lost in the shufflethose who were conducting wellness checks.

"It brings peace of mind to families who may have a loved one in our area but they are not able to get to them," she said. "It was a very stressful situation last year, our wellness check lines were jammed and our staff worked around the clock to take all of those calls, doing their best to let families know how their loved ones were."

It's a system she would like to see improved so that workers can more adequately do their jobs without bringing stress to family members via jammed phone lines and not hearing from a family member.

Other topics floated around were debris clean up, making sure residents know what insurance to get, FEMA education and emergency response teams.

Once again, each official got a chance to say what they took away from the meeting and thanked Putnam for hosting the roundtable discussion.

Putnam ended with, "Let's hope our culture of preparedness around this table and the award winning ways of Lee County will activate Murphy's Law and we won't have to worry about a storm this season, but if it comes we'll all be ready and in it together."

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