City breathes a sigh of relief

OKEECHOBEE — Although Okeechobee city government was as prepared as you can possibly be for a storm the magnitude of Hurricane Dorian, everyone was, of course, relieved when it turned north.

Mayor Dowling Watford said, “Everyone seemed to take the warning seriously, especially with the size and uncertainly of the storm. As we have been through these storms many times in the past, both the city and the county were very well prepared. Two meetings per day were held at the EOC (Emergency Operations Center), as well as a conference call, to monitor the progress of the storm and to make decisions on actions (shelter openings, government/school closings, etc), and to discuss any issues that needed attention. The County EOC personnel and volunteers and our state and federal partners did a fabulous job. The County PIO (Public Information Officer), Tracy Rowland, did a great job getting the information out to news and social media to keep everyone informed. We were very fortunate that the storm turned north and thankful that we were spared any damage.”

Okeechobee Police Maj. Donald Hagan explained the police department spent much of the three-day weekend on Alpha Bravo status, but canceled it when the storm stopped moving for a while because they didn’t want to waste the city’s money paying for extra shifts if it wasn’t needed. Alpha Bravo is working double shifts, he said, and full call-in is when they have the night shift there at the same time as the day shift. They just find an office to sleep in because if they leave, they might not be able to get back in, he explained.

But when the storm started moving again and was forecast to come across the state, they went back to it. He explained every time they thought about canceling, the storm would make a little turn like it was coming toward us again. Once the winds subside, they would go out and assess damage. They never went to full call-in during this storm, he said. They were on Alpha Bravo during the daytime Saturday and through the evening and then again on Monday and Tuesday, but it was finally canceled on Tuesday at 5 p.m., when it was finally determined the storm was definitely making that turn north.

“We’d rather be safe than sorry,” he said. “We dodged a bullet with that one.” Even traffic wasn’t the problem it has been in some of the past storms, he said. He believes those who evacuated must have gone south because the hurricane was forecast to go straight up the state, so where would they evacuate to?

City Manager Marcos Montes De Oca said the city was involved with the meetings held at the EOC. Police Chief Peterson and Public Works Director David Allen attended all of those meetings. City hall was buttoned up well ahead of the storm. Being smaller, it was a little easier for them to prep, he explained. For them, the big anticipation was the traffic before and after, but that never ended up happening to the extent anticipated. The police department put its traffic/speed control sign up before the storm so they could get an idea of how much traffic went through town, he said, but he doesn’t have that information yet. The police and fire departments had extra shifts throughout the duration of the storm, and the public works department dispersed their equipment throughout the city so that it was not all sitting in one spot if a tornado came through.

“Everyone took home a truck,” he said. “We had tractors here. We had tractors there. You never put your eggs in one basket. If the public works’ facility floods, you just lost all your equipment, or if a power line is down, you can’t get to it. If it is dispersed, you are good to go.”

Among their many other duties, City Clerk Lane Gamiotea and her staff had the responsibility of making sure all the city’s records were as safe as they could possibly make them. They went out to the records’ storage room and got everything up off of the floor, secured the vault and battened down the hatches. That’s about all you can do when a Category 5 storm is heading toward you, said Assistant Clerk Bobbie Jenkins. Mrs. Gamiotea spent her time during the storm manning the city’s Facebook page and making herself available in case the council needed her.

Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.

Facebook Comment