Charley, Jeanne and Francis
Central Florida's Unwanted Tourists
Emergency Preparedness – Observations from the Region’s Transportation Agencies
Chris Rizzolo, URS
Jackie VanderPol, The Fulcrum International
Friday, August 13, 2004, Category 4 Hurricane Charley made landfall on the southwest Florida coast. Throughout the night Charley raced across the state, slamming into Central Florida and knocking over thousands of enormous oaks and other trees onto buildings, downing miles upon miles of power lines, and blocking roadways. Charlie was the worst hurricane that most Central Floridians had ever experienced. Damage was extensive and virtually shut the region down for nearly ten long, muggy, mostly-powerless days.
Within the next six weeks, three more hurricanes would make landfall in Florida, and two of these (Frances and Jeanne) would directly impact Central Florida. An already weary population suffered these two more blows with resignation to their fate, a quiet bravery, and an uncommon sense of teamwork. Statewide, more than 53,000 residential and business buildings were claimed as a total loss. Orange County topped the list in the number of insurance claims with more than 128,000, though “only” 808 facilities were deemed a “total loss.”
Thankfully, the transportation system faired comparatively well due to previous Emergency Operations Planning. Transportation agencies in Central Florida (FDOT District 5, Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise, Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority, and Orange County) each did their part to ensure safe evacuation routes and speedy system repair. Many heroes helped get Central Florida through these disasters…from sound planning before the storms, to Herculean efforts in the long and redundant recovery process.
Below are brief summaries of events and activities related to these natural disasters that could be applied to a variety of disaster plans for transportation systems.
Florida Department of Transportation
Under the leadership of District Secretary George Gilhooley, FDOT District 5 faced hurricane-related impacts in all nine counties of the District. The District was a flurry of activity even before the storms hit. All districts teleconferenced and made sure the Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP) was up to date. Staff meetings were held and then all employees were allowed to get their personal affairs in order. As each storm approached, Mark Wiseman, District 5 Safety and Health Manager/District Emergency Coordination Officer activated the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to coordinate disaster recovery with local and state agencies.
FDOT maintenance crews took home their vehicles and hardware such as chainsaws and were ready to act as soon as the worst of the storms passed. In the case of Hurricane Charley, which passed through Central Florida between 9:00 pm and midnight on August 13, this meant clearing the roads in the dead of night. By early afternoon, every State Road in District 5 was open to traffic. This was no small task, since many power lines in the area were knocked down and twisted amongst the debris. In cases such as this, FDOT maintenance workers worked closely with the appropriate utility companies before beginning any work.
The top priority when clearing debris from roadways was the Interstate system and essential roadways leading to hospitals, fire stations, etc. Once these facilities were cleared, work began on the state road system. Many roads were completely barricaded by fallen debris, and in some cases only enough room for one vehicle was initially provided. Once the State Roads were cleared, District 5 assisted local municipalities in their recovery efforts. This assistance did not end with clearing road debris. For example, Secretary Gilhooley provided 250,000 sandbags to various local municipalities and requisitioned a refrigerated tractor-trailer from Tallahassee for Lake County.
Loss of traffic signals was another huge impact from each storm. Hurricane Frances severely impacted the coastal regions of District 5, destroying or damaging close to 300 traffic signals. Within one week, District 5 repaired or replaced all damaged and destroyed traffic signals.
District 5 did not simply assist the citizens within it boundaries. When Hurricane Ivan ravaged the Panhandle in September, 36 District 5 employees with trucks and equipment assisted District 3 in their clean-up efforts. In addition, several District 5 workers are still deployed assisting FEMA with Public Assistance and Damage Assessments and may still be through May of next year. Just in time for next hurricane season! Florida’s ASHE National Director, Steve Tidwell, may still be in a tent on the panhandle of Florida assisting FEMA.
Central Florida’s Tolling Agencies
(Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority (OOCEA) and Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise)
Tolling agencies were hard hit with about $14 million dollars in physical damages and nearly $48 million dollars in revenue loss as a result of suspending the tolls before, during and after each storm. These roadways were crucial to the evacuation of millions of residents and served exceptionally well in this capacity due to careful planning and coordination with other emergency services.
Activities Before the Storms
Well in advance of the storms, OOCEA key staff carefully reviewed the Emergency Operations Plan and updated the contact list. Before each storm’s arrival, the number one activity was clearing all debris from drainage structures and securing all signage and construction materials. The systems are undergoing a massive expansion and this was no small task.
OOCEA implemented a rule that there would be no lane closures before the storms and no construction-related work performed immediately after the storms. Knowing that tolls would likely be suspended before, during and after the storms, discussions were held with Florida Tolls Services, the private firm that operates the toll booths, to discuss toll suspensions and reinstatement plans. These plans had to be carefully communicated and coordinated with the Turnpike Enterprise. This was necessary to reduce confusion and prevent possible rear-end accidents at toll booths, since many of the routes feed directly into each other.
Emergency generators were rounded up and topped off. Contractors were contacted and put the systems on “First Call” for repair of tree damage and fence repair.
During Hurricane Charley, the Turnpike experienced bumperto-bumper traffic for 80 miles; remarkably all traffic moved safely off the system within 24 hours. Interestingly, the Turnpike restricted the number of open toll lanes at the booths. This actually reduced congestion and provided safer travel, though a few frustrated motorists did not agree with the logic. This technique was modeled after the Homestead NASCAR race. Traffic moved safely and steadily throughout the evacuation period at 20 to 25 mph.
Plans were made by the Turnpike prior to each storm for a system Contra-Flow, if necessary, meaning both the northbound and southbound routes would become northbound. This presented many challenges and luckily was not necessary. But the Turnpike was fully prepared during each storm, having staff available and the proper equipment ready at each ingress and egress point.
During the Storms - Hunker Down
Personnel were asked to be with their families as the storm hit, and to report back to assist at the earliest possible time.
After the Storms
As soon as they were able, staff reported in to assess and repair the physical damage. Communications systems were unreliable so this presented many challenges.
Most damage at OOCEA was limited to downed signage and fallen trees. Toll booths suffered minor damages on roofs and from air conditioners that had blown off the tops of the facilities. There were no drainage issues due to early clearing. “We fared well because the system was designed to very high standards, and we took the proper steps to prepare,” said Mike Snyder, OOCEA Executive Director. “The biggest problem now is absorbing the financial impact, but suspending the tolls was the right thing to do,” he added.
Under Governor Jeb Bush’s approval, tolls on both OOCEA and the Turnpike were suspended for six days with Charley, seven days with Frances, and four days with Jeanne. “Collection of revenue takes a back seat to moving people safely to shelter,” said Evelio Suarez, the Turnpike Enterprise’s Toll Operations Director.
OOCEA and the Turnpike issued a joint press release when it was determined that tolls could resume. Emergency and disaster relief vehicles, including thousands of power service and tree removal trucks from other states, continued to drive toll-free on the system for an extended period of time. Agencies worked closely with FDOT District 5 and Orange County to ensure that major roadways connecting to the toll roads would be capable of handling the increased traffic once the tolls were reinstated.
TEAMFL, (Transportation Expressway Authorities Membership of Florida) an organization formed to bring together the talents of the state’s toll agencies and consultants, is in the process of gathering the Emergency Operations Plans from each toll agency in the state. They will create a comprehensive EOP that will be available upon request. TEAMFL’s Executive Director, Bob Hartnett, is spearheading that effort. (www.teamfl.org)
“Disaster preparations for public agencies are fairly routine, yet communities suffer from hurricane amnesia,” said Jim Harrison, Director of Growth Management. “By that I mean, people tend to forget how severe these storms can be. We are fortunate at the County to have trained emergency personnel, very sound leadership, and a welldeveloped emergency response plan that allowed us to react swiftly and aggressively. With Charley, we dutifully studied the Emergency Operations Plan and prepared well. When Frances hit, we knew exactly what needed to be done. And by Jeanne we were disaster experts!”
Before the Storms
Key preparations before the storm included stocking up on traffic signals and signs, and locating and inventorying everything. The county roadway system did fairly well due to a long-standing policy requiring upgrades to mast arm traffic signals which are much less vulnerable. Drainage areas were cleared and retention ponds and lake levels were lowered as much as possible to create storage for the flood of water.
As did the other agencies, the County hired emergency debris removal contractors who were ready to hit the ground running at first light (clearing major arterials first for life/safety, then collectors, and finally local roads.) Field Operations Centers were created and staff was briefed and hundreds of county vehicles were fueled and equipment was positioned across the county.
County leaders initiated the regional Emergency Operations Center which included over 200 staff and agency representatives. An important early step was to implement a public information campaign for preparedness - locals will remember Chairman Crotty’s mantra “Folks, this is not a drill!”
After the Storms
The County maintains good communications regularly with other agencies such as the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, Public Works, and the utilities companies. Orange County staff from all departments…from public works, to legal, to administrative staff, worked side by side in recovery efforts after the storm. They performed search & rescue, damage assessment, manned information call-in centers, repaired roofs for the elderly or handicapped, cleared roadways, and distributed sand bags, water and more than 15 tons of ice to residents. There were more than 200 people working at the Emergency Operations Center in Orange County. At its height, the message center was taking more than 1,000 calls per hour.
One of the major difficulties included getting an accurate listing of signal outages. More than 300,000 residences were without power. “We need to, and plan to develop, a good database of the signals and a plan to inspect them,” said Harrison. These inspections had to be done manually; better signal maps would have helped the crews immensely. Crews were in close contact with various power agencies, and by mapping major power outages it was easy to see where the transportation problems would be greatest. Police and sheriffs directed traffic or free-standing four-way stop signs were posted at intersections without power. (Interestingly, after several days, power companies asked all residents to turn their porch lights on. In this way, they could visually determine where the smaller pockets of outages were.)
Debris clearing crews were mobilized before the storm, and then were out working at first light. The main priority was to make sure emergency vehicles could get through. There were more than 2.8 million cubic yards of tree debris in Orange County alone!
One other problem, and a big one for Orange County residents, was the fact that the sewage lift stations are electrically operated. Four hundred of the county’s 600 lift stations were out after Charley. “We had made inter-local agreements to share equipment such as generators with neighboring counties. But no one really expected such widespread damage. With none available to borrow, we rotated our 25 generators until more generators came.” Staff had to venture out in the pouring rain immediately after the hurricane, moving generators from one lift station to another every few hours.
County Chairman had declared the county in a state of emergency and accelerated purchasing activities early on. The cost of these storms to Orange County tops approximately $80 - $90 million dollars, $60 million of which included the debris removal. Thankfully, much of this will be reimbursed by FEMA.
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