Teamwork gets credit for storm preparedness

Everything is returning to normal, at least as far as Villagers are concerned. For residents who were starting to come down with cabin fever after a few days inside with nothing to do, the sun reappeared and prompted them to return to their favorite outdoor activities that The Villages has to offer, whether it was golf, tennis, swimming or just listening or dancing to their favorite tunes.

Playing golf, swimming at the pool, dancing in the squares — all that and more resumes today as life in The Villages gets back to normal after a close call with Hurricane Dorian. Residents breathed a sigh of relief that the storm changed course and left the area unscathed, with no more rain and wind than a typical afternoon storm. For the officials who spent long days working to keep the community safe, Dorian leaves in its wake a quiet confidence that The Villages was as prepared as any place could be. They credit teamwork, communication and thorough planning that drew upon lessons learned from past storms. “Our processes were good with Irma, but we looked for continued improvement of those services,” District Manager Richard Baier said, referencing the 2017 hurricane.

Over the past two years, the Village Community Development Districts adopted several changes ahead of strong storms, including:

— Reaching out to residents on the east side of U.S. Highway 27/441. Community Watch and other District staff went door-to-door Saturday to about 3,000 homes, handed out storm-preparation brochures and answered questions, Baier said. “We wanted to reach out to our residents who are most susceptible to wind damage,” he said. “That interaction with the residents cannot be replaced by any sort of electronic means. We also were able to share information as to Lake County’s role with the shelters and special assistance needs.”

— District storm response assets were distributed throughout the community. “Realizing we’re a large community, just under 86 square miles, we prepositioned heavy equipment with our contractors throughout the community,” Baier said. “We also prepositioned our fleet vehicles to assist us if one area got hit. So they were not placed in one area. They were interspersed throughout The Villages so our staff could mobilize.”

— Stormwater management processes began earlier. “As of about three and a half weeks ago, we started a good deal of reallocation of stormwater from one pond to another that might have storage capacity within the drainage sub-basin,” Baier said. “We also had new larger pumps at Lake Sumter, not only for circulation purposes, but also for the transfer of water to other basins that are able to receive water so that there was an equalization and maximization of the staging of those sub-basins.”

— Contracting with local debris removal teams rather than companies from elsewhere. “We now have a number of contractors who are locally based who can respond to the needs of debris collection,” Baier said. “Our debris management contractor provided us with detailed pre-planning notices of how it would interface with the District. We also were able to meet early to discuss the plan with all three of our debris removal contractors. In fact, we invited our primary debris contractor into our emergency operations meeting to be a part of the discussion of how the District mobilizes its resources.”

Sumter County, which includes most of The Villages, reacted more decisively to Hurricane Dorian because of the new emergency operations center at The Villages Sumter County Service Center at Powell Road and County Road 466A, County Administrator Bradley Arnold said.

“One of the benefits of that emergency operations center is that it is larger and able to accommodate a larger number of attendees,” he said.

The storm preparations also reinforced the success of the county’s new Citizens Information Center, which operates 24/7, 365 days a year, Arnold said.

“That’s one of the most significant changes from the past,” he said. “That operation is ongoing on a normal daily basis. The people who are answering the phones for the county are the same folks at the same location handling the emergency operations center. It also was easy for us to add additional staff when we had to go into the evening hours to provide support.”

Storm-shelter operations also worked at a higher level than in the past, Arnold said.

“We had already practiced the setup operation for the special-needs shelter at the Wildwood Community Center and the shelter at the Sumter County Fairgrounds at Webster,” he said. “We also had an opportunity to train more people to be able to provide this service.”

Members of the Sumter Extension of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences staffed the fairgrounds shelter.

“This year for the first time, the IFAS team managed the fairgrounds shelter,” Arnold said. “That relieved other county employees of that responsibility. And the IFAS team did a fantastic job preparing the shelter and closing it down. We have proven the IFAS team as competent and capable of serving that role in the future.”

When it came to shelters, Irma also taught county staff another valuable lesson, Arnold said.

“We learned from Irma how the special-needs and fairground shelters can be pet-friendly shelters,” he said. “So we had a better setup than we did for Irma.”

Time for Recreation   

Though Dorian wasn’t even a tropical disturbance when The Villages began a major effort to lower its basins from all the rain that fell in early August, the move provided some peace of mind when early forecasts had Dorian crossing Florida.

At its peak, the drainage project left nearly one-third of the community’s golf holes unavailable as courses took on the excess water. Had Dorian come ashore, though, the basins would have been ready to absorb the rainfall and help prevent flooding.

“Had we gotten a significant amount of rain, we would have done just fine,” said David Williams, golf operations chief.

Plans originally called for all courses to be closed until at least Friday, but Williams said officials began to reconsider as Dorian began its slow turn north and Central Florida moved out of the forecast cone. Still, the plan was to stay cautious until all of the Florida coast was outside the cone.

Golf is set to resume this morning on all courses around The Villages that were open last week ahead of Dorian’s approach, Williams said. Courses that will remain closed are listed at GolfTheVillages.com.

“We feel confident that it’ll be business as usual,” he said about today. “It’s our every intent to make sure the golf courses are ready for normal play.”

Williams added that golf cart restrictions may be in effect at some courses. Anyone who needs to check should call the course in question.

The District anticipated opening all recreation centers this morning throughout the community, Baier said.

“Even though it takes two full days to roll out facilities vertically and horizontally, we will be open for recreational business,” he said. “Some residents may see our staff putting up pickleball screens. We appreciate their patience with the ongoing efforts.”

District staff also must ensure all pool chemicals are at appropriate levels and replace all safety equipment to the proper locations. They also are working to put back wind screens at outdoor courts and replace outdoor furniture.

Safety First

The Villages Public Safety Department views every emergency as a chance to improve procedures, Fire Chief Edmund Cain said.

“We sit down. We do a critique and we make adjustments to our plan for the next time,” Cain said.

After Irma, the department learned important lessons about command center operations. During any major event, Cain said, they will send someone to the emergency operations centers, or EOC, for Lake and Sumter counties.

“We learned we can’t send just one person to an EOC,” he said. “If we send two people, they can each work a 12-hour shift and rotate. That way they’re staying fresh.”

They also made some changes to how they staged their equipment and personnel to best respond, Cain said. For example, they try to get all their personnel into the stations well in advance of a storm. “I have people coming from Orlando or Tampa,” he said. “We don’t want our people driving in hazardous storm conditions. If there are evacuations, we don’t want them getting caught in that traffic.”

Community Watch made changes as well. Any time sustained winds exceed 20 mph, they have to remove all of the gate arms to make sure they don’t become projectiles. It’s not a quick task, Community Watch Chief Nehemiah Wolfe said.

“We planned to remove them by Sunday and that worked out well for us. We didn’t want the storm to change course and arrive early,” Wolfe said.

Making a Tough Call 

For Director of Entertainment Brian Russo, lessons learned from Irma made it easier to get things done quickly this time.

“More people knew exactly what to do and what to prioritize,” he said. “This made tearing things down and storing things out of the elements quick and efficient.”

He and his staff wait as long as possible to make decisions on canceling entertainment so that they have as much information as possible, Russo said.

“Decisions to cancel or close the squares aren’t always about what’s happening that minute, but what could potentially happen,” he said. “I always look at it from the perspective that if we have entertainment on the squares, we are encouraging people to be outside. So then we ask ourselves if we’re comfortable encouraging that. ... We always want to open, but public safety is paramount. We will never intentionally put anyone at risk.”

One of the lessons learned from Irma is to communicate on every possible platform, said Elizabeth Constant, booking coordinator at The Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center.  “We learned to update our voice mail messages, Facebook, website, all social media sites, send email blasts, and more with the same message,” she said. “We try to hit our patrons with updates from every possible source they might use to check in with us and the status of our shows.

“If you ever need updated information, call our box office, check our Facebook, check our website and make sure the box office has your updated email address. Even if we are working remotely we will try to get you up-to-date info remotely through websites.”

Communication key to readiness 

Randy McDaniel, director of education for The Villages Charter School, said communication was key to the school’s preparedness.

“We got the right people in the room to bounce ideas around and think about different variables,” he said.

From preparing ahead of time to enhancing communication to thinking about who will make specific phone calls, the school had those strategies in place, he said.

Though some school events were canceled and attendance is still picking up, McDaniel said the school is operating normally.

After being closed Tuesday and Wednesday due to the hurricane, Villages Elementary of Lady Lake will resume its normal schedule today.

The school was designated as a primary shelter, so preparation for the hurricane involved rapid coordination with Lake County Schools, Lake County Emergency Operations Center and the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, said Dave Bordenkircher, principal.

Bordenkircher said school staff worked tirelessly last week to clear all the rooms in three buildings that are designated as shelter spaces.

“Getting ready to open a storm shelter is a very work-intensive project that our teams accomplished in about a day and a half last week,” he said.

Though the school did not open as a shelter for Dorian, Bordenkircher said they were prepared.

While a lot of work goes into preparing to open as a shelter, he said they had to communicate effectively to return all resources and open as a school again.

“The goal is that when students walk into the school, they cannot tell that anything was different,” he said. “We will meet that goal.”

Stay Prepared 

VHA Far South vice president Andy Bilardello, of the Village of Fenney, spent a career working as a sheriff’s deputy in South Florida and responded to Hurricane Andrew and many other hurricanes. Bilardello still volunteers with the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office and wrote about hurricane preparedness for the VHA’s August newsletter, urging residents to buy supplies in advance. His concern now, he said, is that residents don’t get complacent after dodging a bullet: “We’re still in hurricane season.”

Staff writers Phill Stuart, Dayna Straehley, Rachel Stuart, Kristen Fiore and Jeff Shain contributed to this report. Senior writer David R. Corder can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5241, or david.corder@thevillagesmedia.com.