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Cape hosts natural disaster training

By Staff | Aug 7, 2015

In 2005, Hurricane Wilma rolled over South Florida, killing 61 people and causing $21 billion in damage. Ten years later, “Hurricane Kate” – a strong Category 2 – makes a direct hit in Cape Coral.

The city is flooded from Kismet Parkway on south as a result of significant storm surge and rising canal waters. An estimated 60,000 residents are without electricity immediately following the storm due to downed power lines, while reports of injuries and debris are received from across the Cape.

On Wednesday, more than 100 people gathered at the Emergency Operations Center to track “Kate’s” progress, access the total damage and respond, then figure out how to put the city back together.

Two dozen agencies representing three counties – Lee, Collier and Charlotte – participated in the weeklong training exercise in the Cape. Designed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the goal of the exercise was to simulate an actual disaster that impacted the city and Southwest Florida.

“Wilma, that’s the storm we kind of mimicked,” Paul Ganem, a training FEMA specialist, said.

The training – FEMA’s Integrated Emergency Management Course – puts emergency staff under a realistic crisis situation, within a structured learning environment, to test out disaster capabilities.

He explained that the disaster has to be monitored, resources prioritized as new information comes in and more. The Cape also focused on the efficient use of its new technology and the upgraded EOC.

“To test how they (staff) should work together,” Ganem said.

Halfway though Wednesday’s exercise, he expressed approval of the city’s progress.

“They would be doing very well if hit today,” Ganem said. “This community would be protected.”

Jesse Spearo, emergency management coordinator for the Cape Coral Fire Department’s Division of Emergency Management, said 80 percent of the staff was not employed during Hurricane Charley.

“It’s been extremely beneficial. We’ve really be able to test our systems,” he said of the training, noting that there are no negative consequences for errors. “It’s been a high-stress no-fault environment.”

On Wednesday, officials were identifying areas where staff were meeting expectations and where improvement was needed. Interactions between the participating agencies and attitude notable.

“Communications has been outstanding,” Spearo said. “People are really excited and eager to learn.”

He also pointed out the exceptional job that the city’s Community Emergency Response Team, or CERT, was doing. CERT is made up of residents trained in disaster preparedness and response.

“We have a very good volunteer base,” Spearo said.

Areas of improvement included staffing levels for public safety employees.

“It’s always hard trying to get enough people,” he said.

Despite an upgrade in equipment last month – the first in a decade – it is still lacking.

“We don’t have all the modern technology,” Spearo said. “We’ve found that we need a lot more to be effective and efficient.”

Another area falling short was training, in general.

“We have a lot of new personnel,” he said.

As a result, officials have discussed holding quarterly training and more starting next year.

During Wednesday’s exercise, local volunteers and about a dozen FEMA trainers played a variety of roles in an effort to make the scenario as real as possible. Mayor Marni Sawicki and Fire Chief Donald Cochran held press conferences with the media, and CERT volunteers handled non-emergency calls.

Holly Smith, with FEMA, was a TV news anchor. As agency officials in the main room of the EOC released information, she relayed the information via actual broadcasts over a closed circuit TV.

“In any disaster, you have many things you have to deal with,” she said.

Smith cited emergency responders, media outlets and the public as some examples.

“I get to play the news media,” she laughed.

CERT volunteer Dawn Martin also had her hands full on Wednesday. Stationed in the call center surrounded by ringing phones, Martin explained that the team was answering non-emergency calls.

“We’re taking messages and advising as we can,” she said.

Mock residents were calling about ice distribution, power outages, shelters and more.

The hardest part for the team was learning to use the phone system on the go.

“This is really out first practice,” Martin said. “We need more training.”

The Cape was selected, along with 17 other cities nationwide, to take part in FEMA’s Integrated Emergency Management Course. The selected cities were viewed as “worthy” based on several criteria, including their last recorded disaster in the area and partnerships with surrounding communities.

Ganem noted that between 42 and 48 municipalities submitted applications to take part.