Fla. Fire and Rescue Crews Test Emergency Hurricane Plan
Aug. 23—Naples was mostly spared 25 years ago when Hurricane Andrew struck Florida. The Category 5 storm passed about 35 miles south of the city, but Naples still felt the effects of its 95 mph winds in the area.
The next time a large hurricane hits the Gulf Coast, Naples may not be so lucky.
At least, that was the expectation recently when officials from the Naples streets, facilities, building and utilities departments, among other employees, gathered for the city's first hurricane simulation in years.
The exercise was run Friday morning by the Naples Fire-Rescue Department in a makeshift bunker at the police and fire headquarters. According to the simulation, the fake storm had already hit Naples and caused heavy damage.
The exercise began around 9 a.m. when crews reported that heavy winds had passed, and it was safe for emergency personnel to begin their work.
The question firefighters asked of the room: Now what?
Clearing crews, police and rescue officers should immediately begin patrolling the city to remove debris from major roadways and respond to emergency calls, Police Chief Tom Weschler said. And they should do it as quickly as possible, he said.
"As soon as it's safe, get out there," Weschler said.
Meanwhile, police and firefighters would likely be facing a deluge of calls. In that case, Naples should reach out to neighboring fire departments for assistance.
"You need bodies," said Deputy Fire Chief Mike Nichols, tasked as the emergency operations commander during a hurricane. "You need tools and equipment."
Nichols has seen the damage of a major hurricane firsthand. During his first year as a Naples firefighter in 1992, he was part of the crew the city sent to the east coast to assist firefighters in Homestead, which had been devastated by Hurricane Andrew.
There, Nichols saw the roots of banyan trees ripped from the grounds, buildings reduced to piles of plywood and roofs blown off the tops of houses.
"It's still emotional," he said.
To assess damage for a Naples storm, the city could link its network of security cameras into the operations center, Technology Services Director Mark Jackson said. Another official suggested using a drone to look for damage to properties along the beach.
The exercise revealed a couple of kinks in the city's system.
Employees must log every hour they work or the city risks losing federal emergency reimbursement funds, Finance Director Ann Marie Ricardi said. Building Director Craig Mole said his workers can help clear roads, but they ought to team up with firefighters in their heavy equipment vehicles, rather than try to drive through flooded roads in pickups.
Also, who is responsible for feeding the city's workers during a storm response that could last weeks? The city had an emergency food-service contract, but the agreement with the vendor expired, Ricardi said.
"It's probably something we should think about,' Fire Chief Pete DiMaria said. "And quickly, too."
DiMaria, who was named chief last year, said he plans on hosting the hurricane simulation each year.
"It prompts directors to start looking at our emergency plan, get ourselves re-familiarized with that," he said. "It also gives anybody an opportunity to see what may be outdated."