A team of emergency management experts from Arlington are working around the clock in Florida this week, coordinating statewide recovery efforts in the wake of Hurricane Charley.
Charley ripped through Florida Aug. 14 with winds estimated at 145 miles per hour, leaving 13 people dead and nearly 2 million without electricity. In the aftermath, Gov. Jeb Bush (R) declared 21 Florida counties disaster areas.
Charley's path of destruction is presenting some unexpected challenges for emergency workers, particularly when it comes to assisting the state's elderly population, said Robert Griffin, director of Arlington's Office of Emergency Management.
"The damage here is extensive," Griffin said from the team's base of operations in Charlotte, Fla. "It includes a huge percentage of the housing in the area, local businesses, even municipal buildings. The town hall here was decimated."
He added, “We're also dealing with a large demographic of elderly people and it is incredibly hot right now. With no electricity, there is no air conditioning. Creating cool areas and providing shelter for elderly people has become a real safety issue."
The eight-member Arlington team was deployed Aug. 21. It includes emergency specialists from Arlington's police and fire departments along with coordinators from the county's Office of Emergency Management.
The Arlington team is working in De Soto, Charlotte and Hendry counties, three of the state's hardest hit areas. They expect to remain in the field for one full week. Griffin said the most difficult tasks the team is facing include restoring running water and sanitation to homes and providing shelter to thousands of residents who lost their homes. The team is also working to ensure the arrival of truck convoys bringing vital supplies such as food, medical supplies and construction materials. On the heels of 14-hour shift, Griffin said the circumstances his team is working under have added to the ordeal.
"The EOC (Emergency Operations Center) was hit by the hurricane, so we've had to place dryers throughout the building to try and get the high water out of it,” he said. "We've got wires running on the floor in pools of water and there isn't much ventilation because the hurricane has damaged the vents. All of that together has made for some very tough conditions."
The team deployed to Florida is comprised of Arlington's most experienced emergency managers, said Diana Sun, the county OEM's director of communications. The purpose of their visit is to offer some relief to local emergency crews who have struggled for days to salvage what they could.
"These guys who headed to Florida are some of the same emergency managers who handled the Pentagon rescues on September 11th," she said. "They know that after a while, there comes a point at any disaster relief center when the managers are just worn down to exhaustion."
Emergency specialists from Virginia's state Emergency Management Office are also in Florida, coordinating donation initiatives. Robert Spieldenner, the state Office of Emergency Management's director of public affairs, said groups like the Salvation Army and the United Methodist Church are giving cash donations to emergency relief funds and special kits filled with cleaning supplies to help Florida residents put their homes and lives back in order. State emergency management workers are also working to provide temporary trailers for people whose homes were destroyed.
"All of these things have to be done and done quickly," Spieldenner said. "It is especially important that people without homes in this kind of situation are given some kind of shelter."
Emergency crews are also dealing with a small-scale outbreak of the Norvo virus, and other intestinal disease brought on by spoiled food, Spieldenner said.
"Food has spoiled in people's homes because they've been without power and refrigeration for days," he said. "They are also under a great deal of stress, which has lowered their immune systems’ ability to resist infection."
The deployment of state and local emergency managers was carried out under an agreement known as the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, a mutual contract for emergency relief ratified by 47 states. EMAC began in 2003, when Hurricane Isabelle hit the eastern seaboard. State OEM Spokeswoman Dawn Eischen said the agreement not only gives much needed relief to people in disaster areas, but it also helps emergency groups in other states gain hands-on experience in crisis management.
Griffin echoed that idea from the team's base in Florida.
"We are bringing back an incredible lesson in mass disaster care," he said. "It is something, I think, we'll dissect when we return to better serve the people of Arlington."
If the situation does not improve, Griffin said Arlington may consider sending a second team to Florida. The cost of sending these emergency workers, he said, would be largely covered by federal emergency funding.