By Air Force Tech. Sgt. Thomas Kielbasa
Florida National Guard
OKEECHOBEE, Fla. (09/08/08) - As Hurricane Ike moved westward this over Cuba Sept. 7, emergency management officials cautioned residents in Key West and South Florida to pay close attention to the hurricane’s track in case the storm turned north towards the United States.
In the afternoon, the powerful category 3 hurricane was projected to strike Cuba, move northwest into the Gulf of Mexico and bypass Key West, but forecasters at the Florida Division of Emergency Management noted there was still uncertainty in the long-range forecast and the storm could still pose a threat to Florida.
“It is important that all Floridians and visitors continue to monitor future forecasts from the National Hurricane Center and begin preparations now for any potential impacts,” read a statement on the Florida Emergency Response Team’s website.
All Keys residents and visitors were under a mandatory evacuation order and Florida emergency officials urged residents to heed local warnings in advance of the storm.
In anticipation of flooding, Florida National Guard Special Forces reconnaissance teams were staged in the Florida Keys on Sept. 7 to assist first responders and identify potential areas where water and wind damage could occur. The teams were also prepared to conduct immediate post-storm damage assessments.
Throughout the state Florida National Guard planning cells were activated if Soldiers and Airmen were called for hurricane recovery missions, and twenty liaison officers were activated.
Noting that an earlier storm track showed Ike would hit Miami and the Florida peninsula, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez reminded citizens that Ike was a powerful hurricane and to remain prepared in case of a dramatic shift in the storm.
“We need to watch it closely over the next couple days,” the mayor said during a press briefing at the Miami-Dade Emergency Operations Center Sunday morning. “As of today Miami-Dade County is outside of the cone of error and that is extremely good news, however, that does not mean we will not feel its effects.”
Less than 100 miles northwest of Miami, local resident James Donnan joined other sportsmen Sunday afternoon as he placed his refurbished 13-foot airboat into the waters of Lake Okeechobee. The 730-square-mile lake is the second largest freshwater lake wholly within the continental United States, and has a drainage basin covering more than 4,600-square-miles in South Florida.
Donnan, a resident of the city of Okeechobee on the massive lake’s north end, noted rains from the recent Tropical Storm Fay have flooded parts of the area and he is wary of other storms that could bring more flooding.
“I’m really concerned,” Donnan said. “Okeechobee is kind of a low-lying area. With any major rainstorms we get major flooding.”
He said when Tropical Storm Fay drenched the area in late August, his property was badly flooded: “You couldn’t see my whole yard. At the deepest point it was probably two-and-a-half-feet. My trailer house is on stilts, and the only place that didn’t have water was underneath the house on the pad.”
Donnan, who uses Lake Okeechobee for fishing and recreation, said even though Hurricane Ike is forecast to avoid his area he still heeds the emergency management warnings and follows the National Hurricane Center tracks.
“You make minor preparations: food and water and gas,” he explained. “It’s kind of far away now to make any drastic preparations like boarding-up and evacuation, but you still pay attention.”
Over the weekend, the Florida National Guard was actively preparing for landfall.
According to Guard officials, more than 9,000 Guard members are available for call up.
Guard special forces recon teams staged in Key West and Key Largo for immediate post-storm damage assessments Sunday, said Lt. Col. Ron Tittle, a spokesman for the Florida National Guard. “These teams linked with local officials and located adult living facilities, locations where the homeless live and other areas where Floridians would be vulnerable,” he said.
In other actions, the Florida National Guard:
Evacuated 20 patients from Key West to an alternate medical center in Statesboro, Georgia, aboard a North Carolina National Guard C-130 aircraft.
Deployed to Homestead Air Reserve Base, the State Logistics Readiness Center in Orlando, and the Orange County Civic Center to assist with State Emergency Response Team (SERT) logistics activities.
Activated planning cells across the state to be ready to stand up the Task Forces as needed.
Activated 10 State Emergency Response Team liaison officer teams to deploy to affected counties.
Prepared 10 Black Hawk and 4 Chinook helicopters for deployment in south Florida, and coordinated with National Guard Bureau to pre-position 14 more helicopters in Savannah, Ga.
“These actions are accomplished out of the abundance of caution so the governor can respond very early,” Tittle said.