Hurricane conference attendance spikes after Irma, Maria

Monroe County Emergency Manager Marty Senterfitt, a stocky guy with a composure shaped by 30-years as a first responder, finally broke down.

He had been working 18-hour days after Hurricane Irma’s crash through the Florida Keys when he picked up a statewide conference call and was asked the question no one had: “Marty, how are you doing?”

“I lost it,” Senterfitt told an audience Wednesday at the Governor’s Hurricane Conference in West Palm Beach. “I literally started crying on the call. I said, ‘I need help.’ ”

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About 2,000 emergency managers, hurricane experts and municipal leaders from 30 states are meeting this week at the Palm Beach County Convention Center, which will host the meeting through 2022.

After 2017’s hyperactive hurricane season, attendance is about 25 percent higher than the previous year and includes representatives from 62 Florida counties and 12 countries.

It also drew high-profile figures. FEMA Administrator Brock Long, National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham and Gov. Rick Scott spoke during a general session Wednesday.

The theme of the conference is messaging.

“Here’s the deal, we could make a perfect forecast, but if people don’t understand it, it doesn’t count,” said Graham who fills the vacancy left by Rick Knabb, who is now a hurricane expert for The Weather Channel. “We have to talk about the cone and communicate that we can still get impacts hundreds of miles away.”

Hurricane Irma, which made landfall near Cudjoe Key as a Category 4 storm, was the first major hurricane to hit Florida since 2005’s Hurricane Wilma.

In all, 2017 racked up the most named storms since 2012, including 10 hurricanes — with six major hurricanes at Category 3 or higher – triple the average season. The major storms included hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose, Lee, Maria and Ophelia. Harvey, Irma and Maria made landfall in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, respectively.

An early report by University of Colorado hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach predicts a slightly above-normal season, but that may be adjusted Friday when Klotzbach is scheduled to give an update on El Niño and La Niña trends and how they may affect the season.

Hurricane season runs June 1 through November, and emergency managers at this week’s conference are building on lessons learned during the 2017 storms.

“Many of us learned we need to make our messaging more effective,” said Bill Johnson, Palm Beach County’s emergency manager and program chairman of the conference. “We have an over-evacuation problem.”

About 6.8 million people evacuated for Hurricane Irma statewide, but 3 million were not in evacuation zones.

Mandatory evacuations were ordered in Palm Beach County for about 153,000 people. Another 138,000live in areas that were under voluntary evacuation. About 17,000 people stayed in Palm Beach County shelters.

With the exception of mobile homes, evacuations in Florida are based on storm surge, not wind. That means people should evacuate tens of miles inland, not hundreds of miles north, Johnson said.

Johnson also stressed that people need to bring their own supplies to shelters, which often don’t have cots or anything more than basic medical care.

“What we offer is safety, food, beverages and 20 square feet of cold floor space,” Johnson said.

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