Kickoff to Hurricane Season 2020: A discussion with local emergency managers as they prepare for hurricane season

What we’re talking about

In this episode of Disaster Recovery Roundtable, we hear how emergency managers in Florida, Virginia, and Texas are preparing for the start of hurricane season. They’ll share unique circumstances and considerations in their communities, including how they are planning for potential COVID-19 impacts if a threat develops.

Emergency Managers are preparing for the start of the 2020 Hurricane Season under unique circumstances as they develop response considerations for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Palm Beach County, Florida; Virginia Beach, Virginia and the City of Houston have developed specific response plans and guidance to minimize COVID-19 impacts if sheltering is necessary during this hurricane season. Other considerations that all three communities are addressing include mitigating for the public’s fear or reluctance to evacuate due to COVID-19 concerns.


(0:02 – 14:43) 

You’re listening to our special coverage of hurricane season 2020. In this episode we visit with emergency managers in three coastal communities preparing for hurricane season. Palm Beach County, Florida, Virginia Beach, Virginia, and the City of Houston. 

This is Disaster Recovery Roundtable, a platform to explore, engage, and educate the emergency management community. Our topics are timely and relevant, intended to promote the exchange of ideas and best practices. Now, here’s your host, Greg Badgett. 

Thank you, Steve Henderson. Our coverage of hurricane season 2020 continues in this episode of Disaster Recovery Roundtable. We are chatting with local emergency managers on the front lines preparing for hurricane season. 

Our first guest is Bill Johnson, the EMA director with Palm Beach County Emergency Management in southeast Florida. Bill, welcome to Disaster Recovery Roundtable. Thank you, Greg. 

It’s a pleasure to be here. Can you share with our listeners a little bit about your history with the agency, how long you’ve been there, you know, are you guys set up through fire or public safety, a little bit about your staff, and just in general what are you guys doing now that hurricane season is upon us? Sure. Palm Beach County Emergency Management is the, one of the largest staffed emergency management agencies in the state of Florida. 

We’re one of 67 agencies in the state of Florida. There are 67 counties in Florida, so there’s 67 county emergency management agencies in the state of Florida. As I said, we have the largest county staff, second only to the state EOC. 

We have 29, 30 staff, I’m sorry, 30 staff now, partly because we are the largest county in the state of Florida in terms of land mass. We have about 2,400 square miles. We have about 1.5 million residents that we account for. 

We have two scales, more or less. We have the Palm Beachers, and so we have a very affluent, again we have the Winter White House, so we’re on the East Coast, and then over on the West Coast and in other areas throughout the county, we have the, some less affluent. We have a very high propensity of elderly within the county, special needs, and medically frail clientele that we have to prepare for. 

All of those demographics go into our planning here within our emergency management program. What we’re doing now for hurricane season, the 2020 season, you know, they’re forecasting it to be a busy season. My guess is that since just yesterday, we had, which was before, even before the season started, we had a landfalling storm, the number, the second storm prior to the beginning of the season already this year. 

I’m not sure what that means for the rest of the season, but we are preparing and we’re always preparing for disasters, including hurricanes. With the most recent impact, I guess was maybe Irma a few years ago, what are those benchmarks there that people can relate to that are more local, more recent? We’ve actually had several hurricanes recently, and each one of them has been different. We had, you know, Matthew, Irma, and then recently the scare with Dorian. 

And Dorian was the hurricane that wasn’t, but I mean, it was a category 5 hurricane that was 63 miles offshore, which was enough to scare the heebie-jeebies out of any of us. But Irma was the one that kind of went up the spine of the state of Florida, if you will, and was one that was definitely something that caused a fair amount of consternation for us, because again, because that was a, it was a very difficult storm to forecast. The evacuation issues and whatnot. 

We had 3 million people in the entire state of Florida that were shadow evacuees, if you will. Those are the people that evacuated but didn’t need to, and we had to deal with that within our own county. We really try to minimize the amount of evacuation in our county. 

We have, down here in southeast Florida, we have more than a third of the entire population of the state of Florida in our three counties, and yet we have an infrastructure to the north of us. You know, we have 12 lanes of highway down in Miami-Dade County that narrows to two lanes just north of our county, and so the infrastructure just simply cannot handle evacuation of 7 million people. So we have to evacuate within our county. 

We have to stay in our area, and I think in some ways it’s, we have to work on changing the paradigm here. It’s not, so we talk about evacuation of miles, not hundreds of miles. We try to create that balance so that people aren’t going to Otomo, Iowa, but instead are staying within our county, not clogging up those roads, because we need places like Monroe County, we need to give them space to be able to evacuate, and as well as Collier and Lee counties to the southwest of us, they have to actually evacuate the majority of their counties because they’re such low-lying counties, so it’s a big puzzle. 

You know, we are not in an island in our own county. We have to work with the entire southern part of the peninsula. Being where you are in Palm Beach County, you’re kind of like in that hurricane alley, so to speak, where you guys get a lot of activity, a lot of threats. 

Hurricanes are a big deal. If you had some advice, some words of wisdom for fellow emergency managers, maybe in other parts of up the coast or in areas that don’t quite get as much activity, what would you share with them? What would you say to them as they prepare and get ready to prepare this year? The rules don’t change. The four rules that I had is to have a plan, build a kit, stay informed, and get involved, and so first one is to have a plan, know whether or not you live in an evacuation zone, and if you live in an evacuation zone, then you need to have a plan as to where you’re gonna go, and again, I still think that you need to know just that you should stay within the county. 

We evacuate for storm surge, not wind, so go to a family member’s home, preferably co-worker, friend’s home. Hopefully you’ll know what their status is in terms of COVID, and then you can, number two, have a plan or a kit, and you can share kits, and you’ll, as I said, knowing the status of those, of the two families, you’ll, you can, you know, you can share masks, or have masks, or not need to mask, whatever, but again, having that plan and sharing those kits will help alleviate that situation and make the situation very tenable. If you don’t have a place to go to, then obviously we have all of, we will open up all of our evacuation centers. 

We are making modifications to our evacuation plans and centers and shelters to accommodate COVID, and so we are, you know, we’ll be doing some screening on, at registration, so that if people are not feeling well, we will ask them to, we may segregate them, we may take their temperature, or do a little bit more further screening. We may, we’ll work with providing masks and additional hand sanitizer, and additional cleaning supplies. We’ll be cleaning throughout the shelter. 

We’ll do other activities that will help maintain social distancing. For example, and for when we’re, when we’re feeding people, we’ll be cuing them, we’ll be, we’ll be staggered meal times and whatnot, so that, so we can maintain that, that kind of staggering system, and that’s, that distancing. We can spread out in, within the shelters. 

We try to, normally we try to fill from one end of the shelter to the other, so we know how, what the capacity of that shelter is, but what we may not start doing is, is spreading them out at the beginning, and then just kind of filling in the gaps. We believe that we have plenty of capacity. If we find out that a shelter, for example, is starting to get a little bit crowded, we will start, we will shift people to other nearby shelters and whatnot, so there are a variety of strategies that we will, we will put in place to make sure that people who go to shelters will feel safe and comfortable in, in, in light of COVID-19. 

Some great advice there, Bill, and great information. Thank you so much for your time today, as best of luck. Hopefully you guys will have a quiet year. 

Stay with us. When we come back, we’ll head up to Virginia Beach, Virginia. You’re listening to Disaster Recovery Roundtable, available on your favorite podcast provider and on our website at, and now back to your host, Greg Paget. 

And welcome back. Today we’re featuring emergency managers along coastal communities in the U.S. as they get ready for hurricane season. On our next stop, we’re heading up to Virginia Beach, Virginia, to chat with the Emergency Management Director of Virginia Beach Office of Emergency Management, Erin Sutton. 

Erin, welcome to the show. Thank you. Happy to be here. 

Can you give our listeners a little bit perspective of what Hampton Roads is like, the community there, and the role that Virginia Beach plays? So, in Hampton Roads, we have, I think we’re close to about 1.8 million people in Hampton Roads itself, and Hampton Roads, it really includes 17 different jurisdictions, and we are a very large military community. We have 19 federal properties in the Hampton Roads area, and two of the main military facilities, Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach, which is the master jet base for the Navy, and then Norfolk Naval Base, which is the largest naval base in the world. We have, Virginia Beach’s primary economic driver, obviously, is tourism with the coastal community. 

We have 29 linear miles of coastline, so we have the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, and actually, we have about 56, 57 square miles of inland waterways as well. So, we are very aware of the water around us and the challenges that we face with hurricanes. One of the biggest challenges we have in Hampton Roads is getting around, traversing our transportation network, which is filled with bridges and tunnels, which makes evacuation extremely challenging. 

So, for the city of Virginia Beach, with about 455,000 people, and our next neighbor, I believe, at Newport News, across the water, across the Hampton Roads bridge tunnel, is probably about 250,000 to 300,000. So, we have quite a large population here in Hampton Roads. This year, they’re already talking about it being an active season. 

I think this week, we could probably see that’s probably going to be true. We already have three named storms in the first week of the season. I’m sure that must bring a little bit more, you know, uneasiness for you as an emergency manager, just worrying about the fact with more storms, there’s a greater threat always there along the east coast of the U.S. How do you prepare yourself? How do you get yourself into the mindset that hurricane season is here this year, with everything else that’s going on with COVID-19 and everything else? How are you doing this differently? So, one of the biggest challenges that we’ve had is we’ve been in, you know, we’ve been in the COVID response operations posture since, pretty much since mid-March. 

And so, everyone has has been in that posture, and it’s been extremely challenging because everyone has moved home. We’re virtual. Most of our services are closed. 

So, the standard kickoff that I usually do in the April time frame of, you know, come, let’s get together, let’s talk about hurricanes. May has always traditionally been when we’ve had our large EOC exercise to go through a hurricane scenario and talk through what we need to do or tweak for the season. And this year, we just were not able to do that. 

And now, with COVID and thinking about the sheltering challenges and what that’s going to look like because sheltering, having the shelter capacity is always a challenge with our large population. So, what we’ve done is gathered our stakeholders as best we can together virtually and in person because what we have done is gone back to walk through our shelters to identify additional spaces that could be used so that we could maintain social distancing. So, we’re rolling into hurricane season, missing some of the training that I like to do ahead of time. 

The plus side to this is that we have been in an incident command structure and having weekly briefings and building incident action plans for COVID. So, we’re not going into the hurricane season completely cold, but it’s definitely a challenge that we have not had a chance to sit down and talk strictly hurricane. Last night, I stood in front of the City Council to give my annual hurricane preparedness update and it was it was rather strange standing up there without talking about COVID-19. 

(14:43 – 26:33) 

But, getting everyone in that frame of reference is definitely kind of a 180 turn. Do you have any fears that COVID-19 may play a role in how people respond to any threat you guys face this year? I absolutely do. It’s one of the key things that I talked about with our City Council because my fear, which I think is actually, you know, the financial hardships that that folks have right now, whether they’ve been laid off, hours cut, their businesses, you know, folding because of COVID. 

There are a lot of significant financial difficulties right now and whereas that person typically would have in the past had the means to gas up the car, pack it up, and head to their particular destination, maybe stopping at this gas station or this particular hotel or this particular restaurant that may actually not be open this time around, or have the ability to pay for a full tank of gas. That is the significant issue that weighs on me because on the other side of this coin of financial hardship is we utilize our voluntary organizations active in disaster quite significantly as we have with disasters over the years and built very strong relationships and these financial hardships have affected them as well in their fundraising, their ability to retain their their volunteers as well, and especially for Virginia Beach, we’ve been working with our volunteers, our voluntary organizations from a year ago when we had our shooting to rolling into Hurricane Dorian, which luckily was not too significant for our area. To COVID, they’ve been a significant support for COVID response to now into hurricane season, so I’m really looking and concerned at what recovery is going to look like for us. 

I think it’s going to be a prolonged recovery because of the financial hardships, the means that people have to to go out and fix their properties after the fact, or even secure their properties before the storm comes, are really big issues that we’ve had to have some discussions about with our stakeholders. Well keeping our fingers crossed that you guys will be spared, that those storms will stay offshore if they’re nearby and go on out into the ocean. Hopefully it’ll be a quiet year for you as you guys continue to recover and also heal from from that tragic event, you know, now a year ago. 

Thank you so much Aaron Sutton from Virginia Beach Emergency Management. When we come right back, we’ll head down to the city of Houston. You’re listening to our special coverage of hurricane season 2020. 

Now back to your host, Greg Padgett. Our final guest in this episode as we chat with emergency managers preparing for hurricane season is Mel Bartas with the Office of Emergency Management in Houston. Not only the largest city in Texas, but also one of the largest population centers vulnerable to a hurricane in the U.S. From hurricanes to even weak tropical storms, they’ve seen all kinds of disasters. 

Welcome to the show, Mel. Thanks so much for having me, Greg. Now that hurricane season is here, one could argue, you know, the Houston area is one of the most active regions for tropical activity in the U.S. If you just go down the list of just recent over the last 10 years or so with Hurricanes Harvey in 2018, Ike in 2008, Rita in 2005, and even tropical storms have caused a lot of problems down there. 

Allison comes to mind from 2001, and of course the granddaddy of them all is the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900, one of the benchmarks that we use in the U.S. for the deadliest disasters on the list. How can you encourage your public or do you need to encourage them to really take hurricanes seriously every year? Well, Greg, the standard for preparedness is truly a year-round process for the Office of Emergency Management. We truly have an all-hazards emergency management plan and the process this year, in terms of the work that needs to be done, is not terribly different. 

So we have a planning training exercise cycle that is pretty standard, but this year we are instituting some minor changes and adjustments to our plan to make sure that the CDC guidance is being implemented in terms of social distancing and sanitizing and those types of things. But for the most part, our plans are the same and we just we’re going to need some more resources in order to make them effective. You mentioned Allison. 

Of course, Harvey was a big flood event for Houston as well. Is that your biggest risk, your biggest concern from a catastrophic standpoint, is flooding? Yes, I believe flooding is our most significant risk. If you look across the whole landscape of the city of Houston, there are large swaths of the city that are vulnerable to it, not just from bayou or stream flooding, but also sheet flow. 

And so the flood hazard is significant across the vast majority of the region. We obviously have other hazards of concern, including hazardous materials incidents, terrorism hazards on down the line, but flood and then also for hurricane wind risk. And we do have some surge zones that impact some of the some of the southeastern portions of the city of Houston as well. 

That is our most significant and biggest potential for catastrophic conditions in Houston. If there are any COVID-19 fears out there that your public may have, and there’s a threat that comes and you guys have to order evacuations for certain sections of the city or population, are you worried at all that the COVID-19 fears might keep people from evacuating or following instructions or maybe financially they aren’t able to evacuate because they’ve been impacted by the downturn in the recession? We are definitely mindful of that and we are working to craft and our PIO has already worked to craft messages to ensure that the public understands that we are taking some additional steps with our evacuation and shelter plans to ensure their safety and as well as working with the first responders about what we can possibly do to protect them right out of the right out of the gate. So we’re working on that collectively through our city departments and across the public messaging spectrum to ensure that that message is going out to the public currently in preparedness times. 

And then if we have a hurricane or tropical storm threat that there will be specific messaging to let them know some adjustments to their hurricane kit that they might need to have and some additional guidance that we would provide to the public such as you know ensuring that they have masks and hand sanitizer if they have access to those things. But really we are not going to turn anyone away. At the end of the day our interest is in public safety and we want to make sure that that everyone is safe and out of water and in a safe location. 

And then from there we’ll make sure that we implement the social distancing guidelines once they’re in a safe location. You and I also both have experience with catastrophic planning initiatives with FEMA in the past when Louisiana and Florida for example. What is if anything is Houston doing related to catastrophic planning in those considerations? I love this question. 

So Houston was a recipient of regional catastrophic preparedness in the first round from 2008 to about 2000 fiscal year 2011. And we we had included catastrophic hurricane as one of our scenarios as part of that effort and developed quite a few topical plans and for different functional areas including search and rescue operations and and mass casualty and mass fatality efforts. And we also are recipients of the new funding mechanism under regional catastrophic the new regional catastrophic preparedness that FEMA released. 

And so in that new effort we’re focusing on the FEMA community lifeline specifically the food water shelter lifeline and developing assessments of of the whole region not just the city of Houston but the the greater Houston area including 13 counties around that surround Houston. And it is it is an initiative that we’re able to build on from our previous iteration. We’re really excited to get that underway. 

We’re working on some technologies to help not only government partners but also the private sector partners share information with each other in terms of supply chains and the integrity of those lifelines and and also feeding that information up. We we need to know here at the local level but we also need to share that information with the counties with the state and the federal government is certainly interested about our capabilities here to support. So that is that is a big effort that we have underway and we’re really excited to to begin working through that process. 

And I could go down a rabbit hole here but I’m you know because of COVID and there are representatives from the city of Houston who have worked very closely with those supply chain partners from with the grocery supply chain as well as fuel and communications supply chain. So those those communication providers to make sure that that that partners and people people in the public who may be at risk and not have access to food resources or technology resources when we went to e-learning for the most part that they have the resources they need to meet their meet their basic needs. So we have been building on that and we will continue to build on that with the catastrophic planning effort that we have underway. 

Great information Mel on that catastrophic front and for our listeners who may not know you have a lot of experience coming from other areas of the country where you’ve done some work and consulting with catastrophic planning, Louisiana, Hurricane Pam project before Katrina and then also with the state of Florida. So great work there great stuff Mel I’m sure the city of Houston is so grateful to have you on their team. Thank you for being part of our podcast today and best of luck with that system in the Gulf of Mexico as it heads up north this weekend. 

We are hopeful that it will Greg thank you. We’d like to thank all of our guests today Bill Johnson from Palm Beach County Emergency Management, Aaron Sutton from Virginia Beach Emergency Management and Mel Bardis here from the city of Houston. This has been our continuing coverage of hurricane season 2020 five podcasts in five days. 

If you missed one of our earlier podcasts from this week you can check them all out on our website at forward slash education. Also feel free to drop us a line and tell us if you like the podcast and also if you have a You’ve been listening to disaster recovery roundtable, a platform to explore, engage and educate. For more information on this episode visit our podcast page at You can download previous podcasts, learn more about the programs we discussed and suggest a topic for a future episode. 

You can also find us on your favorite podcast provider. This has been a Tidal Basin production. Thanks for listening.