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Hurricane-Free For A Decade, Florida Residents May Have Storm Amnesia


It is June 1. That's the official start of the Atlantic hurricane season. Elsewhere on today's program, we are hearing about preparedness planning in New Orleans. And now let's turn to Florida, where emergency managers are worried.

They're worried because a hurricane has not made landfall in Florida for some years. And as Ryan Benk of member station WJCT reports, that has officials thinking about hurricane amnesia.

RYAN BENK, BYLINE: During a hurricane, Florida emergency managers coordinate their response from fortified headquarters in Tallahassee. But on a recent afternoon, they took the show on the road.

AARON GALLAHER: That basement is the mobile command vehicle.

BENK: That's emergency response team spokesman Aaron Gallaher. Everything they need to respond to disasters is here inside this high-tech RV. It's just one of the technological advances made in the 11 years since Florida last experienced a hurricane.

GALLAHER: A lot of the same sections and components you'll see in the State Emergency Operations Center can be found in here. You'll find a logistics section, finance section and geographic information section.

BENK: In addition to annual hurricane exercises, every five years, officials move their operations to another part of the state. They do this to prepare in case their main offices get knocked out. Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Bryan Koon says he knows most residents don't pay this much attention to detail.

BRYAN KOON: Millions of new Floridians have come to the state. And even folks who were in Florida during those last series of hurricanes may not have been impacted by them.

BENK: A AAA survey shows nearly half of Floridians are not actively preparing for hurricanes. And less than a quarter said they won't evacuate, even if told to. Jacksonville resident Carlos Manuel doesn't plan to take any chances.

CARLOS MANUEL: This is more like the long-term food...

BENK: Oh, wow.

MANUEL: ...Storage. So we probably have enough food for at least three months, I would think.

BENK: His cupboard is stuffed with canned food and large cases of water. Upstairs, he stashed homemade survival kits for his daughter, wife and himself.

MANUEL: You wouldn't think - some cash. So this is kind of like a emergency whistle - multipurpose compass, signaling mirror. So this is actually a water filter - food, shelter, fire.

BENK: Sleeping bags, a tent, tarps, knives, dehydrated food and other supplies are tucked away. He hasn't always been so prepared. That changed four years ago when Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey. He and his family were living there at the time. He didn't evacuate. Once the water reached the tops of cars, he knew he'd made a mistake.

MANUEL: Our power went out. And that's when kind of the tide started coming in and the winds and all the rains started coming in.

BENK: Emergency Management Director Bryan Koon says he hopes that isn't something other Floridians have to learn firsthand.

KOON: The fact is that we don't only get better after a hurricane hits Florida. We get better every time somebody else has a hurricane. And we see what went right and what went wrong.

BENK: Even though it's been 11 years since a hurricane has hit Florida, emergency managers say that's no reason to rest easy. It only takes one bad storm to make people wish they'd prepared better. For NPR News, I'm Ryan Benk in Jacksonville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.