Clewiston was ‘well prepared’ for Dorian

CLEWISTON — City fire and police departments and municipal officials took to the city’s Facebook pages with warnings, essential public information and cautionary videos they shot in the EOC as Hurricane Dorian bore down on the Florida peninsula at the end of August.

They started right after Hendry County declared a local state of emergency on Thursday, Aug. 29, opening the Clewiston Emergency Operations Center (EOC), and didn’t cease until the county announced Tuesday, Sept. 3, that regular operations could resume

And that didn’t happen until the National Weather Service (NWS) finally declared that South and Central Florida were all but completely out of the slow-moving but deadly hurricane’s “cone of error” and would most probably not see a direct landfall. Whew!

While there was relief all around South, Central and Southwest Florida — except for anyone worried about family or friends in the Bahama or Abaco Islands, of course — no one will be able to relax until these sticky autumn days get much shorter, the tropical sun’s scorching heat finally begins to fade and hurricane season becomes a memory while roast turkeys’ aroma fills the air and jingle bells start to ring.

But in the meantime, there are hurricane plans to revisit, people to thank, monies to be raised, volunteers to be mustered and preparations to be tweaked for the next go-round.

We reached Clewiston Mayor Mali Gardner on a hurricane-delayed day off from her “real job” on Friday; she’d planned a whole vacation but was not going with a Category 5 hurricane threatening, so she settled for a few days free.

Recalling the days of waiting that could be called “hurricane labor” due to the coincidence with the U.S. national holiday, she said: “Unfortunately, we had a running experience with Hurricane Wilma, and of course, with Hurricane Irma we went through a preparation as well. So we were very well prepared for any storm activity with Dorian. We were just thankful for our local business partners, who reached out to us and said, ‘We’re here.

Whatever you need us to help you with … we’re prepared.’ And that was, of course, from U.S. Sugar but we also had other local businesses involved.”

She said that the first day of the threat, “Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart contacted me directly from D.C. before the storm to make sure we knew that they were available to us at any time for anything that we might have faced. He was the first one to call.” Mayor Gardner added, “I also received a call … from the White House on behalf of President Trump, just to let us know that whatever we need, to call upon them, come what may.”

She had contact also with both Florida U.S. senators’ offices (Marco Rubio and Rick Scott), with State Sen. Kathleen Passidomo and Rep. Byron Donalds, and was “in constant communication with Hendry County Emergency Management in regards to their need with the state on the emergency management.”

Clewiston officials participated in the group calls conducted by the NWS and the state Division of Emergency Management. “Also, Governor DeSantis, through the Florida League of Cities, had daily mayor calls just to see if there were any unmet needs during the whole storm process,” she said.

The mayor said the main concern in the EOC was about Lake Okeechobee. “There was a specific call with the National Weather Service and the Army Corps of Engineers, where representatives from the South Florida Water Management District and other agencies were on that call just specific to Lake Okeechobee. I can tell you that they were all prepared and attuned to every nuance of issues regarding the lake,” Ms. Gardner related.

Regarding the videos she and other Clewiston officials recorded in the EOC that were posted on social media, the mayor explained: “We felt it was important to share with the community what we knew as we were facing maybe a possible path of Dorian causing some effects here … after that point when we realized that we weren’t, we continued to post … updates … in English and Spanish because we wanted to make sure that everybody in the community understood where we were at.”

She said it was personally reassuring to her how well all the communication went during what could have been the prequel to catastrophe.

“The resources that the state and federal level bring to a local government during a hurricane event are just something I’m very thankful for, and I’m glad we didn’t have to call upon them, but knowing that they’re ready…”

Everyone was glued to TVs and communications devices, waiting to watch Dorian turn while simultaneously fearing that the forecasters could be wrong and it would just keep coming west toward Lake Okeechobee where it was firmly headed.

Said Mayor Gardner, “We’re so thankful that it didn’t.”

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