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. With 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.