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Palm Coast Friday, Sep. 6, 2019 3 months ago

How the city of Palm Coast mobilized 400 employees — often in unexpected roles — to respond to Hurricane Dorian

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Many preparations began months before Dorian was even a cloud in the Atlantic.
by: Guest Writer

By Kimberly Norman

Public relations associate, city of Palm Coast

As Hurricane Dorian approached Florida, the city of Palm Coast's 400 employees were mobilized to prep parks, clear roads, trim trees, lower canals, test sewer pipes, disperse sandbags and make sure equipment was in place. Many of the employees took on different roles than their titles would suggest.

From fire captain to emergency coordinator

Palm Coast Fire Capt. Thomas Ascone is normally guiding a team of firefighters who respond to fires and car crashes. As captain, he runs day-to-day operations in a command role.

When Dorian’s path was projected to possibly impact this community, he transitioned to his other job title: emergency management coordinator, a role Palm Coast didn’t have until 2019.

In this role, Ascone coordinated between all city departments for storm preparations and through recovery and response: updating staff on the latest weather reports, creating a food unit, establishing an Emergency Operations Center at the main fire station, developing a daycare plan with Parks & Rec for employees to continue working while schools were closed.

For the first time in the city’s history, Tommy constructed a mini City Hall of technology with computers and phones at the EOC. He also coordinated resources between the city and county.

On the phone lines

Thanks to extended hours through Labor Day weekend and 24-hour open phone lines in the hours before Dorian finally passed by, the city’s customer service representatives worked around the clock to make sure questions were answered and did so with smiles on their faces.

The team is usually staffed at City Hall from 8 to 5. They answer about 10,000 phone calls a month – mostly those that relate to utility services including billing, setting up service and citizen support. They also process utility payments.

For Dorian, there was no reporting to City Hall. Instead, many of them left their families to be at the city EOC in a makeshift Customer Service phone center. They answered over 3,000 calls in five days. Customer Service Supervisor Lisa Asbill worked 39 hours in two days – staying upbeat and keeping her team’s morale high.

Customer Service Reps Tracey Hodges, Pam Miller, Lucy Nabico and others found themselves answering calls unique to the storm about shelters, evacuations, garbage collection, sandbags and curfews. There were other calls, too, about which businesses were open, non-emergency fire calls, and questions about EMS courtesy transports to shelters. Some residents simply dialed in needing a comforting voice or some reassurance—even at 2 a.m.  

There were cots, but not much sleeping. The adrenaline, combined with anticipation, kept many of them awake even when the phones were relatively quiet. Miller, who doesn’t drink coffee, said she stayed awake with the help of both M&M’s and her colleagues.

In these times, coworkers begin to feel more like family. Hodges earned the title “Positivity Enforcer” by cheering on the team throughout Tuesday night when many worked longer than 24 hours straight, repeatedly telling them, “We got this. It’s gonna be a great night.”  

Records by day, culinary queen by night

As city clerk, Virginia Smith manages Palm Coast records for the state of Florida. You can usually find her in her office at City Hall or at City Council meetings sitting next to the council members.

Smith always wears many different hats. For Dorian, she donned a Chef’s hat.

Smith and her team of 20 organized to feed and hydrate 400 city employees working before, during, and after Dorian. She led the “Culinary Command” serving breakfast, lunch, dinner and plenty of snacks, including (most importantly to Fire Chief Jerry Forte) ample jars of strawberry preserves.

The meaning of preparation

To many, preparation starts when a storm’s path is projected to make an impact, but for city staff, storm preparedness happens all year round.

For example, city stormwater teams began educating the public on a new Stormwater Management Plan adopted by Mayor Milissa Holland and the City Council at the beginning of 2019. The plan took the new approach of improving swales, ditches, canals, water-control structures, pipes and drainage basins by looking at how these systems work together to protect homes and businesses from flooding.

New, proactive solutions focus more on the ditches and freshwater canals and how they have a greater long-term impact on improving the drainage system across Palm Coast.

Ascone graduated from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Emergency Management Basic Academy at the Emergency Management Institute in June. He began working to improve the City Emergency Management Plan at that time, to ensure the best preparation and response by the city for these types of events.

Later in the summer, employees from multiple city departments began chainsaw training. This was vital to their role on a team called the “First Push” that goes out right after a storm to clear roadways of downed trees, so emergency responders can have access.

A lot goes into preparing for a storm. It’s an all-hands-on-deck mentality, and the city of Palm Coast is here to serve you. We hope your city made you proud. We are here and ready to respond…whatever duty calls.

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