Dorian preparations went smoothly in Hendry County

LABELLE — Luckily for Hendry County, it was never under the same watches and warnings as the rest of the Lake Okeechobee region last week during Dorian’s brush-by of Florida — and, officials said, it turned into one big but useful practice run.

County Communications & Legislative Coordinator Emily Hunter, who was on duty keeping people informed during the exercise, said that as far as shifting to an emergency mode of operations, “we didn’t have any issues on our end.”

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News
LABELLE — Hendry County Emergency Management Director Richard Lehmkuhl (right) speaks with a WINK TV news crew regarding preparations for Hurricane Dorian, on Friday, Aug. 30.

Sandbags were available
County emergency operations staff were making available and distributing sandbags for public use starting the night of Thursday, Aug. 29. By Saturday, Aug. 31, preparations were being made to open one shelter and a decision was later made to open two, at LaBelle Middle School and Clewiston High School. They opened Sunday, Sept. 1, and had overnight guests that night and Monday, Labor Day, before they were closed during the afternoon Tuesday, Sept. 3. A short time later, the county announced resumption of normal operations.

Ms. Hunter said, “The schools are overall responsible for the sheltering, in terms of staffing them. We did not hear of any complaints on our end.” The county’s Emergency Operations Center was in operation at full activation on Monday and Tuesday until around 2 p.m.

She said staff was working on a written “After Activation Report” to be given to the County Board.

Hendry County Schools Superintendent Paul Puletti said everyone at the school district was relieved Hurricane Dorian didn’t come this way.

Shelter activation “went very smoothly,” he said. “I’ve been dealing with hurricanes in Hendry County since 1995, and this was the smoothest operation.

“Now, we’re also grateful nothing happened, but it was also good practice for the event when we might have a major issue,” Mr. Puletti stated.

Red Cross trained personnel
Asked about whether the Red Cross was involved, he explained that the people who were welcoming clients at the two schools were actually district staff who had received special training for just this type of event.

“After Irma, we trained all of our staff to become Red Cross managers. Red Cross was not here. They were wearing Red Cross ID badges because they’ve been trained, but those were our employees who’ve been trained as Red Cross shelter managers,” the superintendent explained.
Hendry sheriff’s deputies also were present. “That’s for security,” he said. But the school employees took care of setting up the space for potential storm refugees. “And it was a good practice session,” he added.

In Clewiston, they had 102 people seek shelter. Pioneer was run by someone else. (community association?) “In LaBelle there were 28 registered but only 18 were at the shelter,” Mr. Puletti said.

Hendry County schools ended up being closed for only one day extra over Labor Day 2019, the one that’ll be remembered for the Dorian scare.

“We were out for one day; Labor Day was a holiday. Our calendar would accommodate that. We haven’t really made that decision or call yet” whether it will need to be made up, he said.

“We hope for the best in the rest of the hurricane season and hope we don’t all have to go through this again,” he agreed, adding that the visit of Hurricane Irma in 2017 did help local residents to be better prepared this time.

Hendry County Emergency Management Director Richard Lehmkuhl visited with a WINK TV news crew regarding preparations for Hurricane Dorian the day before Labor Day. County officials overall were well-prepared for an emergency, suggesting voluntary evacuations for anyone who felt they might be unsafe where they were.

For future reference, residents are reminded to stay tuned to Southwest Florida news stations and online to for the latest information in the event of other tropical storms or hurricanes that threaten in 2019 before the season’s official ending date of Nov. 30.

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