Floridians 'in denial' about hurricanes, Fugate says
Published: Wednesday, August 21, 2013 at 2:35 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, August 21, 2013 at 2:35 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE -- Almost halfway finished, the 2013 hurricane season has been a breeze for Florida.
But Craig Fugate, the federal government's top emergency manager, looks at things a little differently. His question: “Have we started playing college football yet?”
Fugate and Bryan Koon, director of the state Division of Emergency Management, held a news conference Wednesday to reinforce the message that Florida is just entering the thick of hurricane season in late August and September --- which, coincidentally is when college football starts.
The folksy Fugate, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency who grew up in the Gainesville area and once served as Alachua County's emergency management director, knows what he is talking about.
Fugate also formerly served as Florida's top emergency manager, including during the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons, when seven hurricanes plowed into the state.
Despite the memories of those devastating years, Fugate and Koon expressed concerns that Floridians will not take steps such as heeding evacuation orders if a storm comes.
“I think it's in our DNA --- we go through denial,'' said Fugate, who started his career as a fire-rescue worker in Alachua County.
Raised in Alachua County, Fugate attended fire college and paramedic school at Santa Fe College after graduating from Santa Fe High School in 1977. He began his career as a firefighter, then became Alachua County's emergency management director in 1987. He began working in state emergency management in 1998.
Florida has been spared hurricane damage during the past several years and has not been seriously threatened this year. But Fugate and Koon said late August and September are considered high points of the hurricane season because of warm water temperatures that help fuel the storms.
Koon noted that Saturday is the 21st anniversary of Hurricane Andrew slamming into Miami-Dade County and said it “only takes one” hurricane to cause massive damage. The hurricane season started June 1 and lasts through Nov. 30.
The emergency managers focused heavily on the need for Floridians to follow evacuation orders. Fugate said the public becomes too fixated on the category of the storm --- with Categories 1 through 5 delineating strength --- and that much of the worst damage often comes from issues such as storm surge and flooding.
“Don't focus on the number, focus on the impacts,'' Fugate said. “The category of a storm does not tell you all the impacts.”
Koon said evacuations and forecasts are not an “exact science” and that sometimes people will be told to leave areas that, in the end, don't need to be evacuated. But he said emergency officials are focused on saving lives.
Florida also could face increased damage if a hurricane hits this year because of heavy rains that have already saturated many areas. Koon said that could lead to problems such as increased flooding, more trees falling down and roads washing out.
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