By DOTTY NIST
Walton County Emergency Management hosted a May 21 Hurricane Preparedness Town Hall Meeting at the South Walton Annex. Many of the attendees were families new to the area who were intent on learning about hurricanes and hurricane preparedness.
While Subtropical Storm Andrea (now dissipated) formed on May 20 in advance of the 2019 Hurricane Season, the season officially starts on June 1 and continues through Nov. 30.
Walton County Emergency Management Director Jeff Goldberg took the lead in addressing attendees at the town hall. Christ Eliadis, emergency management coordinator, was in attendance as well.
Goldberg spoke not only about hurricanes but about other emergencies, noting that he and his staff plan for all types of emergencies, some examples being fires, flooding, and transportation incidents. He explained that the three categories of emergencies are manmade, technical and natural.
Goldberg encouraged residents to get their individual plans in place for emergencies, as well.
He also recommended that residents consider getting flood insurance even if their home is not in a flood zone.
Eliadis spoke about information on evacuation shelters, which is provided on the Emergency Management Division’s website, www.WaltonCountyEM.org when evacuations are in place. He said shelters are opened in a phased fashion depending on need, and that not all shelters may be opened for a particular emergency. Shelter is available with any type of evacuation. The first shelter to be opened, Eliadis explained, is Freeport High School.
Eliadis said Walton County has capacity to shelter approximately 300 pets (dogs and cats), and that owners are required to stay with their pets and take care of them. Pets other than dogs and cats are not allowed in shelters.
Goldberg spoke about special needs shelters which, he explained, are for people who are too ill to be in a regular shelter but not ill enough to be in a hospital. He indicated that people may register for a special needs shelter on the division’s website and that approximately 250 people are registered for a special needs shelter. Registration is suggested to help with planning, but people with special needs who are not registered are not turned away from special needs shelters.
Goldberg told attendees that Walton County Emergency Management prepares for hurricane season just the same, whether the forecast is for a slow or busy season.
He explained voluntary and mandatory evacuations. With a voluntary evacuation, Goldberg said, there is potential for a threat to life and residents may not feel safe in their homes. Shelter is provided during a voluntary evacuation, but people are required to bring items that they need with them to the shelter, he explained. Cots are not provided in a pre-impact situation, Goldberg noted.
With a mandatory evacuation, “imminent threat to life exists and you must evacuate,” Goldberg told attendees. Anyone not evacuating during a mandatory evacuation will need to be prepared to be self-sufficient for 72 hours, and there can be no response if the person calls 911, he noted.
Goldberg urged everyone to know their evacuation zone. This information can be obtained on Walton County Emergency Management’s website by entering your home address.
He emphasized that the storm surge and water are the most deadly factor in connection with hurricanes. Storm surge is the wall of water that is pushed toward the shoreline as a hurricane moves onshore. With a major hurricane the surge can be 10 feet or more above the normal level.
Goldberg clarified that storm surge predictions are based on the number of feet above ground or “where you are,” with the topography of the particular location taken into account.
Watches are issued up to 48 hours in advance of the time when damaging winds are possible in an area, and warnings are issued up to 36 hours in advance of when such winds are expected. Residents may sign up for alerts through the Alert Walton program on Walton County Emergency Management’s website.
Returning to the discussion on shelters, Goldberg said commodities from the Walton County School District are used to furnish snacks and water (not meals) at shelters during the first 24 hours. There is 15 feet per person at the shelters, so there is a limit on items that can be brought in by citizens due to the space constraint.
Goldberg stressed the importance of having a disaster supply kit in the home. This should include food and water to last the family at least three days.
Advice provided on the return after a storm was to take photos of damage, make temporary repairs, and locate personal property. Access back into the area may be restricted after a storm evacuation, and proof of residency is required. Employees are advised to contact their employer for information and instructions on returning.
Goldberg encouraged attendees to consider participating in the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training program, which is offered by Walton County Emergency Management and helps citizens prepare to help their families and neighbors in the event of a disaster. This is a free 24-hour course usually taught in three or four segments.
“It is a fantastic program,” Goldberg said of CERT.
He explained that after CERT training citizens may elect to work alone or as part of a team. Goldberg emphasized that “there’s something for everybody” as part of a CERT team regardless of physical condition.
Other volunteer opportunities, he explained, are working in shelters, amateur radio operation, answering phones, or helping with social media. Volunteers work with Walton County Emergency Management both during emergencies and on a day-to-day basis.
Public information provided by Walton County Emergency Management includes not only the website, www.WaltonCountyEM.org but also Facebook and Twitter pages. Goldberg said the division’s Facebook posts may be viewed even if you do not have a Facebook account. The division’s email address is email@example.com and the phone number is (850) 892-8065.