Sunday, February 25, 2018

The 20 year anniversary of the epic 1998 Florida disaster year


This month marks the 20th year anniversary of the epic series of disasters that afflicted the State of Florida in 1998. That year we were activated in the State EOC for 202 days (almost 7 months), a record that wasn’t to be broken until the Deepwater Horizon activation in 2010. The Deepwater Horizon activation was continuous, and I didn’t work every day in that activation, but in the series of disasters that hit Florida in 1998 I think that I worked almost every one of them.

The front sign to the Florida State Emergency Operations Center in 1998. FEMA vehicles are parked on the street in front of the EOC. In 1998 the State EOC was activated a record 202 days.
My disaster epic started in February 1998 while I was driving my daughter to Rickards High School in Tallahassee, as I did most weekday mornings. As always, the car radio was tuned to WFSU, the local public radio station. The radio announced that five tornadoes had hit Central Florida overnight with an undetermined number of deaths (The final death toll from the tornadoes was 42).

“That’s strange,” I commented to my daughter. “You’d think that they would have activated the State EOC.”

Before she could respond, my pager (remember those?) went off. Went a practiced motion, I pulled the pager off my belt and handed it to her, keeping my eyes on the road and my other hand on the car wheel.

“What’s it say?” I asked.

“Report to State EOC,” she read off the device.

At that time, I worked for the Florida Department of Agriculture and did my disaster duties with the State Emergency Support 11, Food & Water. I didn’t start working with Emergency Support Function 6, Mass Care until November 1999, when I switched State agencies.

Although I didn’t work in Mass Care my main job was to support the mass care agencies in the field, primarily with truckloads of bottled water and/or ice. Our Agency also controlled the U.S. Department of Agriculture School Lunch Program commodities.

I have a vivid memory from this time of talking on the phone to my friend Kevin Smith, from the Salvation Army. I was at the State EOC and he was on the ground in the middle of the tornado affected area in Central Florida. I remember that he ordered a truck of water and a truck of USDA commodities for a Salvation Army Staging Area. Once these resources arrived, the Salvation Army would distribute the food and water in the affected area using their Canteens.

My friend Kevin Smith of the Salvation Army (2nd from R) holding a cell phone that looks like one of today's satellite phones. Kevin is on scene at one of the locations where destructive tornadoes killed 42 in February 1998.
After we responded to the tornadoes, North Florida started flooding, which was at least a month and a half of boredom waiting for the water to rise and then the water to fall so that the citizenry could go home. And then the wildfires started.

And then in the Fall Hurricane Georges arrived. And yes, Craig Fugate was there the entire time.


Sunday, January 28, 2018

Working the Bugaboo Fire

The biggest wildfire season in Florida for headline-inducing drama was the 1998 season, when the whole state almost burned down, and we had every other disaster except volcanoes and locusts. The Bugaboo fire didn’t hit the headlines like the others but was personally the most dramatic fire that I ever worked from the State EOC.
Florida Division of Forestry firefighters working a wildfire in Florida in 1998.

The Bugaboo fire reached out and touched me at about 9 PM the evening of May 10, 2007. I was sipping on a Scotch at the bar of the American Legion in Tallahassee when the state issued cell phone on my hip started ringing. We had just finished the monthly members meeting and I was having a drink with my friends before heading home.
I put the phone to my ear and gave my standard greeting. “Mike Whitehead.”
I recognized the voice on the other end of the phone as Amy Godsey, the State Meteorologist. The background noise indicated that she was calling from the State Emergency Operations Center.
“Dave Halstead wants you to come to the State EOC,” Amy said. Dave Halstead was the State Emergency Response Team Chief, or the man who ran the EOC during a disaster.
“What’s going on?”
“The Bugaboo fire is blowing up.”
“OK,” I said. “Tell him I’ll be there in about 20 minutes.”
The Bugaboo fire was born on Bugaboo Island, deep in the Okefenokee Swamp in southern Georgia. The fire crept south, following the National Forest, and moved into Florida. Much of what I knew about wildfires and the combating of such conflagrations I had learned from Jim Karels. Jim worked for the Division of Forestry in the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and by 2007 had risen to be Director of the Division. Later on Jim became the Team Lead of the Yarnell Hill Fire Serious Accident Investigation. The Yarnell Hill Fire was a wildfire near Yarnell, Arizona, ignited by lightning on June 28, 2013. On June 30, it overran and killed 19 City of Prescott firefighters, members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.
In one of many conversations that I had with Jim he explained the arcane art and science of “fire behavior.”  And how there was a difference between fighting wildfires in the Western United States and in Florida. The pine trees and scrub palmetto in the Florida forests, he explained, provided considerably more fuel per acre than the grasslands out West.
I parked my car in front of the Sadowski Building, swiped my badge at the reader, heard the audible click and then entered the State EOC through the door under the archway connecting the two buildings. On the drive over I wondered why, for the first time in my career, I’d been summoned to the State EOC to work a wildfire at night. I’d worked fires during the day. And I’m not an expert on fire behavior but seem to remember Jim telling me that, at least in Florida, the wildfires would rage during the day but “lie down” at night.
I’d also been known to say, if not in presentations then in private conversations, that we didn’t do mass care at night. And I mean by “we” I mean those of us working mass care from the State EOC. Obviously, the Red Cross worked shelters and multi-family fires at night but there wasn’t a lot of mass care coordination that happened at night. People went to bed, got up the next morning and worked out the problems.
And another thing: at the State EOC we never did anything that had to do with mass care immediately. Most of the time when somebody wanted something (a truck of water or ice) that was sitting on hand at the Logistics Staging Area then we would enter the request and they got it the next day. If we didn’t have it already we had to get it from FEMA or, as a last resort, try and get the State to buy it. In any event, that would take days to make the request and then more days to get the product trucked in and delivered to whoever needed it. And whoever needed it would be most unhappy, because when they made the request their expectation on delivery was in minutes, not days.
The Big Room at the other end of the building contained about 30 men and women in various stages of activity. Most of the people I knew well. Jim Karels was there. Carla Boyce, who later went on to work for FEMA was there. Roy Dunn, who had worked the 2004 and 2005 hurricane season with me, and who also went on to work for FEMA, was also there.
A low-pressure system off Jacksonville had intensified and generated a steady wind out of the northeast. That meant that during the evening of May 10 the fire didn’t “lie down.” The wind from the low-pressure system disrupted this pattern, stoking the fire with oxygen and driving it toward the southwest. As I walked into the room several people verbally transmitted the situation to me.
“… there’s a wall of fire twenty miles wide and 200 feet high heading for Lake City…”
“… all the fire fighters can do in this situation is get out of the way…”
“… the State Fire Marshall is rounding up all structural fire fighters they can and sending them to the North edge of the city to make a last stand…”
I can’t remember if it was Dave Halstead, or Amy Godsey, or Carla Boyce, or Roy Dunn,  who told me the reason that I had been summoned to the State EOC at 9 AM on a Thursday night: “We think that we’re going to have to evacuate Lake City. We need you to open up some shelters.”
 A picture of me briefing the State EOC in 2006. Dave Halstead (r) is walking behind me.
Lake City is the Seat for Colombia County and sits astride the intersection of Interstates 75 & 10 about an hour West of Jacksonville. I had visited the county and city many times, mostly gazing at the scenery through a car window on trips from Tallahassee to Gainesville, Winter Park or Jacksonville. Sometimes we would stop there for a rest break or to grab a sandwich.
Now they were telling me that they were afraid that Lake City was going to burn down. And they wanted me to help them do something about it.
I had now been the State Mass Care Coordinator for over 7 years. As I liked to say in presentations, I had worked 8 hurricanes in 16 months and 4 in six weeks, and I’d have to be pretty damn stupid not to figure out what I was supposed to be doing by the 3rd or 4th hurricane.
But did they just say that Lake City is going to burn down? Lake City?
I have a vivid memory of this moment. I was standing in the middle of the EOC. They hadn’t even let me get to my workstation. As I was digesting this message I looked up and saw 6 or 8 people in a semi-circle around me, all with an air of expectation.
I realized that they’ve been waiting for me to arrive and solve this problem. And their expectations were not of days, or hours or even minutes, but right then. Lake City was fixing to burn down, and Mike Whitehead needed to deliver a shelter plan for the inhabitants. Immediately.
My problem was that not only did I not have a plan, I had never envisioned the possibility of this event ever occurring.
I needed a map. The EOC had large (8 feet tall by 6 feet wide) maps positioned on the walls so that one was always nearby. I walked over to the nearest map, my entourage following me. In 2004, during the response to Hurricane Ivan, a picture flashed up on one of the 5 giant screens in the EOC showing that a portion of the Interstate 10 bridge had dropped into Pensacola Bay, and I had walked over to the same map, wondering how we were going to get supplies into Pensacola.
Someone asked me, ”Should we call the Red Cross?”
“No,” I replied immediately. “We’re the State. We can’t call the Red Cross to open a shelter. A County has to call them and request them to open a shelter.”
I stared at the map. Which County? I followed Interstate 75 on the map south from Lake City to the next big city: Gainesville. Alachua County.
I turned to Roy Dunn, standing beside me. “Call Alachua County and ask them to open up a shelter.”
Then I called Karen Hagan, our Red Cross State Liaison, told her what was happening, and asked her to come into the EOC.
The Red Cross got the shelter open. The State Fire Marshall staged every available structural firefighter they could contact on the north side of Lake City. And about 1 AM we got word in the State EOC that the wind had stopped, and the Bugaboo fire had decided to go to bed after all. And so did we.