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Jax Daily Record Wednesday, May 30, 200712:00 PM EST

City prepared for disaster, citizens urged to plan

by: Max Marbut Associate Editor

by Max Marbut

Staff Writer

Pointing out a major hurricane has not hit North Florida since 1969, Mayor John Peyton said Tuesday that Jacksonville’s greatest fear and worst enemy is complacency.

Hurricane season officially begins Friday and Peyton said he hopes the citizens of Duval County realize, “We’ve been lucky but we are not hurricane-proof.”

He urged all residents to know if they live in a flood zone, and if so, know their evacuation route and have a plan in place before a disaster strikes.

“Just getting in your car and going is not enough,” said Peyton, who also said every household should have enough water, food, batteries and other supplies on hand to last at least 72 hours in the event of loss of power, water or other essential services.

Another concern this year, Peyton said, is debris management after a storm has passed. Before the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, Jacksonville Fire and Rescue or JEA repair crews could operate efficiently, the streets would have to be cleared for vehicles.

“We have a very old tree canopy that hasn’t been purged for a long time.”

The City has also instituted a program to identify and register citizens who would have special medical and transportation needs following a disaster. Peyton said plans are in place to handle those needs on an individual basis.

“We have been proactive. We know who they are and how to serve them.”

The Emergency Operations Center at JFRD headquarters is now staffed year-round and emergency services providers have been reworking disaster plans to better link with state and federal agencies. The changes were implemented in view of the performance of government agencies following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

“We’ve seen examples where agencies did not work well together,” said Peyton.

“Hurricane preparedness has become a year-round event,” said Lorin Mock, chief of the Emergency Preparedness Division.

He also said complacency can be a killer when it comes to a hurricane.

When Hurricane Katrina was approaching the Gulf Coat, many people chose not to evacuate based on their experience with previous storms.

“People said Hurricane Camille was the worst it could get, then came Katrina,” said Mock. “That can be a lesson for Jacksonville since so many people believe the storms always turn and that we’re safe here.”

Peyton said a natural disaster could have an impact on Jacksonville potentially as devastating as The Great Fire of 1901, but the city has an advantage: “We can prepare and we do. We were one of the first municipalities to be nationally accredited for emergency preparedness. We have been a leader in the planning process, but so much of the responsibility resides with the individual and with our families. We can provide services, pick up debris and restore the infrastructure, but people have got to secure their residences and look after their families.”

The Red Cross is also working on disaster planning 12 months a year. In addition to traditional services for people affected by a natural disaster, the organization also includes pets in its plans. There are three relief facilities designated as pet-friendly for this year’s hurricane season.

“It would be a shame for someone to make the decision not to evacuate if they needed to because they couldn’t take their pets to a shelter,” said Jack Morgan, Red Cross of North Florida Chapter CEO.

Mock said the City is prepared to provide services after a storm, including maintaining and staffing a self-contained Emergency Operations Center where the administration and emergency service agencies could do their jobs for up to two weeks if necessary. Post-disaster recovery has been organized to the point personnel wouldn’t even have to be familiar with the community in order to coordinate relief efforts. He admitted his department can’t predict everything, but said he’s confident the community is protected.

“The planning transformation that has taken place has brought life into the whole structure. We have a step-by-step plan laid out. We could walk somebody in who has had incident-command training but doesn’t have specific knowledge of the area. There is a how-to guide for every area of service,” Mock said, then added, “It would be arrogant on my part to tell you that we have everything covered. There will be something that will transpire that we may not have addressed, but I think there is enough flexibility in this plan to address whatever it is and respond to it.”

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