When your local government is functioning efficiently and effectively, most of the time you won’t even notice it. You have regular garbage removal; buses stop to pick up passengers; fire trucks occasionally zip past you to assist in an emergency; and the parks and libraries are open for public use.
However, there are rare occasions when the public becomes acutely aware of just how reliant we all are on a local government we can trust; and at no time is that more apparent than in a state of emergency.
When news of Hurricane Irma became omnipresent following the Labor Day holiday, Sarasota County residents were preoccupied with buying water and flashlights if they planned to stay in town, or finding airline tickets, hotel reservations, or even just fuel, if they decided to evacuate. As the week progressed, choices began to dwindle. Residents shared their respective plights on social media – “flights are booked,” “tickets are over $500,” “now the hurricane is heading to Atlanta,” “the entire state is in the cone of uncertainty,” and “filling stations are out of gas.”
Working Behind the Scenes
Behind the scenes, what many people did not know was that county employees were quietly planning for the worst and hoping for the best. County employees distributed sand bags, which were in short supply, because so many had already been sent to Houston recently devastated by Hurricane Harvey. The communications team facilitated daily press conferences, which increased in frequency as the hurricane approached. A crucial campaign for hurricane preparedness called “know your zone,” became a #1 priority as citizens needed to determine if and/or when they would be required to evacuate based on their proximity to a flood zone, or if they live in a mobile home. Others were monitoring social media and responding in real time to all manner of inquiries such as when to go to a shelter, where to get water, and how to avoid accidents on the road.
As circumstances became dire, the emergency operations team ramped up operations to around-the-clock coverage at the county’s emergency operations center (the EOC). This included representatives from Sarasota County Area Transit making sure citizens could get transportation to county shelters; storm water engineers preparing critical areas for the potential of catastrophic floods; librarians and wellness staff who facilitated evacuation plans for persons with special needs; and media relations officers working with the press, many of whom sheltered in place at the EOC, while getting crucial information out to the community. Additionally, the geographic information systems (GIS) team was invaluable in supporting the mapping system, enabling county staff to pinpoint the precise locations of persons with special needs as well as water mains, lift stations, and electricity.
Securing Public Assets
In addition, Parks, Recreation, and Natural Resources employees fanned out throughout the county inspecting beach conditions, securing and/or removing items from parks that were not nailed down, and boarding up county properties, including well-known landmarks such as the Philippi Estate Mansion and the Siesta Key Beach Pavilion. Code enforcement employees swiftly monitored the county to ensure that contractors secured construction sites well in advance of the impending storm. Procurement staff were in state of emergency mode and lifted bidding restrictions to secure last minute provisions quickly.
Providing Safety and Security to Citizens and Visitors
County employees from departments ranging from utilities, libraries, finance, planning and development, extension and sustainability, as well as health and human services helped to manage the county shelters, which opened systematically as the numbers in need swelled following the emergency management team’s determination to transition from voluntary to mandatory evacuation for flood zone A and mobile homes. Employees coordinated with county partners including the school board and the school superintendent to open 13 shelters, which served 19,500 evacuees during Hurricane Irma.
In most cases, the employees called in to monitor the shelters were not first responders in their day jobs. Yet each of these employees knew that residents and visitors put their faith and trust in them, and they were ready to serve their community.
Public Servants Heeding the Call
Among the noteworthy employees who heeded the call and jumped in to help was Ellen India, a librarian and “One Book” coordinator, who had previous experience as a zookeeper. India volunteered at a designated pet shelter for three days and two nights assisting with nearly 800 pets. Daniel Cruz, a public works manager, who is an architect and has helped design emergency operation shelters in the past, volunteered to manage a shelter in Northport, and called the experience “an incredible opportunity to give back to the community.” Dan Zumbro was part of the contact center team that took in 1500 calls per day during Hurricane Irma. Dan said that each call lasted well beyond the normal inquiries he receives; because “seniors were crying and didn’t want to get off the phone, so I had to console and comfort them, as best I could.” For many, his was the last voice they heard before the power went out and the storm loomed overhead.
As the county administrator Tom Harmer said, “There is nothing like a natural disaster to test the mettle of an organization. We still have work to do, but our community should rest assured that we are on the job.”
“Public Service is a Public Trust”
The county’s code of ethics was recently revised to reinforce the county’s focus on the critical function of its employees in serving and protecting the public and its resources. The code reflects the high level of service Sarasota County residents and visitors have come to expect. Never was the concept “public service is a public trust” truer than when the county’s employees became a port in the storm.Faithful Public Servants are a Port in the StormClick To Tweet