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Back-to-Back Hurricanes Force Unique Messaging in Florida

October 3rd, 2023 by Guest Communications

Written by: Jim McKay

Recovering from a hurricane or other natural disaster is not something that happens overnight. The emotional strain can last months or years, and rebuilding can take years or longer.

What happens when a community is hit with one hurricane after another within just a few years? How do local emergency managers prepare residents for a hurricane when they are still reeling from a previous one?

It is a situation that communities in Sarasota County, Fla., have had to delve into as they went from the trauma of Hurricane Irma in 2017 to Hurricane Ian in 2022 to preparing the community for another one, Idalia, this year.

At some point, it’s natural for residents to throw up their hands and say, “Enough already, I don’t want to hear about it,” or to feel that since they survived a previous hurricane, they can do it again without preparation. So for the local emergency manager, navigating these possibilities can be tricky and needs to be done with care.

“When you think back to 2017 and Irma and the size of that storm, everyone remembers the pictures of how huge that storm was and the conversations about literally not being able to see the state,” said Jamie Carson, communications director for Sarasota County, describing what the hurricane looked like on television.

Having just gotten through Irma may have created a false sense of security for some. When officials examined the numbers of people in evacuation centers during the run-up to Ian, they knew that some people were not taking the storm seriously enough.

So the normal approach to informing the public had to be replaced with the sensitivity that people have heard it all before and think they can manage since they’ve been through it. For one thing, local officials didn’t mince words when discussing evacuation.

“We took a strong stance with evacuation and the terminology we used,” Carson said. “We minimized using layers such as ‘voluntary’ now and ‘mandatory’ later that might lead to potential confusion.”

They worked with local municipalities and media partners on honing that sharp, matter-of-fact message leading up to Hurricane Ian with gradual but precise wording about what to expect, all the while understanding that some communities were still recovering from Irma.

“We learned to humanize the information,” Carson said. “One of the things we did during Ian is instead of just throwing information out there, having it come from me or me being in a sterile room, we worked with different subject matter experts to share information so that they are in fact telling their stories.”

Then, just a year later came the possibility of Idalia, another storm.

“We had so many people affected by flooding and still dealing with the effects now, even a year later, and having to go through Idalia. We wanted to take a calm, measured approach,” said Jason Bartolone, communications manager for North Port, the Sarasota County seat. “We knew it wasn’t going to be at the level of Ian, but we also had to take time to show that the city was prepared.”

Sarasota also took a calm and measured approach, and instead of the usual warnings, officials went out into the community — at events such as farmer’s markets — and approached the public in a reassured manner about the possibility of another storm.

“You know you are going to cause anxiety and trepidation,” Carson said. “PTSD is a real thing and so you have to figure out not only how to push information on social media but get people talking.”

The county facilitated discussions within the community about “looking back” at laying sand bags and some of the positive outcomes from Ian. “When you’re able to have conversations with community members and be one-on-one and face-to-face, it helps to inform them and helps connect.”

As the communities recover and some businesses are still trying to get back on their feet, it is still not time for business-as-usual messaging, but for the realization that the communities are still decompressing from recent storms and need a thoughtful approach to emergency preparedness.

This article appeared on Emergency Management News and is shared with consent:

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