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Thursday, Mar 26, 2015

Sheriff responds to errors

Tony Holt Hernando Today
Published:   |   Updated: May 7, 2013 at 04:34 PM

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Chill warnings haven't been in effect for about six months, but callers were hearing them as recently as Thursday.

A weather-event hotline number is posted at the bottom of the Hernando County Emergency Management website. The sheriff's office overlooked it.

Four days after the hard rains from Tropical Storm Debby saturated entire neighborhoods, those who called the number heard warnings about deep freezes and homeless shelters. The recording hadn't been changed since winter.

It was updated about one hour after Sheriff Al Nienhuis was told by a reporter of the incongruous outgoing message.

"The bottom line is every time we have an event, whether it's a major crime or a weather event, we analyze everything we did," Nienhuis said.

"We concede we could've done a better job providing information for our citizens," he continued. "That's something we're going to work on."

Media updates were handled by Lt. Michael Burzumato, an interim public information officer with the sheriff's office. Information about road closings, sinkhole locations and sandbag pickups began shortly after 10:40 a.m. Monday — more than 24 hours after the rains came. The next update was sent at 5:01 p.m.

Nienhuis said the updates should have begun earlier and should have been sent out more often throughout the day Monday, but improvements were made during the next couple days.

Five sheriff's office updates were emailed by Burzumato on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively, and a few more were sent Thursday.

Burzumato also told the media Wednesday that breaking news about the storm and its aftermath would be available on the sheriff's office website and Facebook page.

Emergency Management Director Cecilia Patella told county commissioners Tuesday morning that the Withlacoochee River, which runs through Istachatta, Ridge Manor and other sections of eastern Hernando, would likely flood as early as midweek.

Hours later, meteorologists changed their flood forecasts for the area, but Patella, who didn't return messages from Hernando Today, did not issue updates about the river after her presentation to the commission.

An update on the river flow wasn't sent by the sheriff's office until Wednesday — by Burzumato. The Withlacoochee is not expected to flood.

"Cecilia was trying to get up-to-date reports … she was coordinating with other emergency management agencies around us and communicating with the state," Nienhuis said. "We needed to do a better job of getting the word out on what we were doing. We were spending a lot of time thinking of the battle plan."

In the future, more sheriff's office personnel will be used during a natural disaster to provide information to the media and to ensure that information on the county's websites is regularly updated, he said.

One mistake Patella and the sheriff's office actively tried to avoid was issuing the wrong warnings, Nienhuis said.

"We don't ever want to be accused of saying the sky is falling," he said.

"How long do you want to ring the alarm bell?" Nienhuis continued. "You run the risk of people not listening the next time we ring that alarm bell. Do we know now we should've handled it a little differently? Of course."

He credited deputies and other rescue personnel for what he considered a timely and professional response to residents in need of help.

Nienhuis cited one incident involving a senior in Brookridge who called the sheriff's office Monday seeking help with her oxygen concentrator system. She wasn't sure whether plugging it in would be dangerous in the midst of all the rain. A deputy responded and saw her house flooded with water.

He told her not to plug in her oxygen and gave her a "piggy-back ride" out of the house to a safe, dry place, Nienhuis said.

As for the out-of-date message on the emergency management hotline, Nienhuis said the multifaceted sheriff's website has made giving public information more difficult. There is more data to keep track of online — including jail information, booking photos, event announcements, media alerts and more.

"Having a consolidated dissemination of information is a challenge, and we're working on that," he said.

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