In the hours before Hurricane Matthew, St. Augustine officials and emergency planners discussed the need for a makeshift morgue. In the event of a direct hit, they would need hundreds of body bags and refrigerator trucks.
“They weren’t pre-staged,” says St. Augustine Fire Chief Carlos Aviles of the grim equipment. “But that topic was at the top of our list.”
The city dodged catastrophe when the storm shifted a few miles east. The predicted 10-15 foot storm surge crested at 5 feet, and the Category 3 hurricane never made landfall.
Still, the storm savaged the coast, which is still grappling with fallout. Five months after the storm, officials are looking back at that tense time to assess what emergency planners did right, and what they could’ve done better.
The St. Augustine Hurricane Matthew After Action Report acknowledges communication failures and confusion, but also policies that officials hope will be lessons to other disaster-impacted communities. The report found widespread communication problems – including staff not trained on the emergency radio system, and a shortage of back up chargers to keep it powered. They also found local that hoteliers didn’t know their evacuation zones, and many residents moved in without realizing they, too, needed to leave.
The city found many of its practices worked, including waiving certain fees following the storm, and clearing debris from private as well as public roads.
Perhaps the biggest concern raised by the report was communicating the seriousness of the storm to residents. “Educating … the public proved to be a challenge,” the report notes. “It became increasingly obvious that the majority of the St. Augustine community had limited hurricane experience.”
Aviles, who spent the day before the storm pleading with people to leave, found that out first hand. “I am begging you to reconsider and get out of town now,” he told residents via a live appeal on First Coast News. “All signs are this will be absolutely catastrophic to St. Augustine and St. Johns County. If you are thinking of riding it out I beg you, get out and get out now.”
Fewer than half of the city’s residents heeded that advice, and only about 20 percent of the region’s total population is believed to have evacuated.
Clay County Emergency Manager John Ward says that failure was unfortunate, but prevented a different kind of complication. “We didn’t have a good compliance rate, that’s a bad thing. [But] had those [people] been compliant and moved, you’d have seen significant amount of congestion in the roadway.”
That concern was part of a regional discussion last Tuesday on the lessons of Matthew. Ward wants to work on a staggered evacuation plan that begins on the coast and moves inland, “so we don’t look like what we had with a Hurricane Floyd where we had gridlock.”
St. Augustine residents are encouraged to read the report and submit their own comments and suggestions by March 31. The information will be used to update the county’s Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan.
Send an email with “after action comments” in the subject line to CityFire@CityStAug.com or send a mailed response to After Action Comments, St. Augustine Fire Department, 101 Malaga St., St. Augustine, FL 32084.