Sunday, October 2, 2016

Hurricanes and Knowing their Impact on the OJCC

Governor Scott and executive orders came to mind recently. On the last day of August, a tropical storm evolved from depression nine. The meteorological expert's predicted landfall is a hurricane, and it was pointed straight at Apalachicola. For those unfamiliar with the Florida panhandle, that is a little southwest of our capitol, Tallahassee. The path took it directly over Tallahassee. 

Now, Tallahassee is not "coastal community," but it is simply not that far from St. Marks, where landfall eventually occurred. St. Marks is a quiet little spot on the Gulf, and that is where Hermine decided to make landfall that September morning. And because of the shape of Florida's gulf coast, Tallahassee is only a few miles from that coastline. One website calculates it at less than 13 nautical miles.  For the uninitiated, hurricanes tend to lose strength over land. So, coastal communities get used to them and their brute force, while inland communities become more accustomed to heavy rains and "remnants." But a well-organized storm can bring havoc well removed from the coast. Hermine reminded us of this recently.

I have already lived through more hurricanes than I ever cared too. It is my hope that I have lived through my last. The formation of a storm is something Floridians watch for much of our year. We are all currently watching Matthew slowly turning north for Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, and wondering what it will mean for the Bahamas and south Florida. 

The hurricane season officially starts each June 1 and runs through November 30. My unscientific perception is that the most active portion of that period seems to be August and September. but major storms occur in October and November (only Kate is currently listed as a late-season "major" impacting the U.S., watching Matthew though). So for six months, we watch the National Weather Service pretty regularly, and we pay attention to the news. Perhaps those of us close to the coast more so than others. 

Whitney Houston popularized a lyric, questioning How Will I Know, in reference to her interest in a man. But the same lyric is one we might rationally remember regarding weather and weather closures. Ask yourself (lyrics slightly modified, quoted lyrics are italic)

How will I know (Don't trust your feelings)
How will I know
How will I know (Storms are deceiving)
How will I know
How will I know if its coming near me

This chorus might later in the song include the phrase ("just check the website"). When inclement weather threatens, there is a consistent stream of inquiries to the Division of Administration Hearings and Office of Judges of Compensation Claims. I would like to say that the inquiries are limited to infrequent users of our services. Unfortunately, the increase often come from frequent practitioners, judges, mediators, and staff. These staff and customers should be more familiar with the OJCC weather closure policy. Unfortunately, in our everyday lives, when no cyclones are threatening, it is easy to put such emergency procedures out of our minds. 

In 2008, an administrative order was prepared and published for just such occasions. It outlines how to effectively and efficiently gauge whether a particular OJCC office will be closed due to a weather or other emergency. This is published on the "administrative order" portion of the OJCC website, which will be a handy resource as subsequent orders are published. 

In September, after Governor Scott issued his Hermine-related executive orders, I found myself referring individuals to that 2008 order. And in that process, a fair few pointed out to me that the order is arguably in need of supplementation or amendment. After some consideration, I have concluded that they have a good point, and in the interest of providing as much information as possible to our customers, that administrative order will be amended and re-issued.

See, forewarned is best in these situations. That is why the news made me think about Governor Scott. The Governor made some difficult decisions in the face of Hermine. Before the storm impacted us, he issued executive orders number 205 and 206. Therein he delineated county by county, the closure of state offices resulting from this impending weather emergency. The distribution of those orders was calculated to inform quickly and directly. They removed a lot of doubt for people. See, knowing whether your trial or mediation will proceed is a real benefit when schools are closing, property needs to be protected, and evacuation is contemplated. Storms disrupt our lives and they bring so much uncertainty and doubt. Having solid information about closures and cancellations is a real comfort. 

It is important to remember a couple of things about hurricanes. First, they are destructive and dangerous. Some Floridians "batten down" and "ride it out," but a notable population of us subscribe to the "get outta dodge" (a colloquial reference to Dodge City, Kansas and perhaps from the western of our youth, Gunsmoke). That's right, a fair number of us run from hurricanes. I am the first to admit that "flight" is my initial reaction when I see one coming. The complication to our "flight" logic is too often not being able to decide which way to run; hurricanes are well-known for the difficulty we have predicting their actual course. The last thing you want do do is run (west or east) only to have the storm turn that direction and follow you. 

The Governor's Hermine orders took that predictability issue into account and addressed various counties, those in the predicted path and some not in that path, but in the possible paths that might evolve. See, getting people prepared for the worst, while we all hope for the best, is the way you prepare for a hurricane. Hurricanes are dangerous. They bring winds and storm surges and flooding. Comedian Ron White, reminding his audience of the dangers in these storms, reminds that "it is not that the wind blows, it is what the wind blows." Debris can cause significant damage. 

And, in those orders, the Governor's use of county delineations raised an issue with the OJCC office in Sebastian. For many years, the district office in that region was in Melbourne, Brevard County. Now that it is in Sebastian, Indian River County, there is the potential for confusion from the 2008 closure policy order. Thus the first suggestion for amending the administrative order. When government offices in Brevard were closed by executive order, the question was whether that meant the OJCC "Melbourne District." Well, according to the map, the answer was no. But according to that 2008 order, the answer was yes. Thus, confusion where none was needed. 

Another thought from this recent experience was social media. Since 2008, the OJCC has come a long way regarding the dissemination of electronic data and information. Our world is changing around us at an incredible rate. It therefore also makes sense that the administrative order provide direction to users who might seek closure information through social media such as Facebook and Twitter. And in time, there is no telling what other social media alternatives may surface, flourish, and yet fade away as the once popular MySpace. Thus, a second good reason for amending this order, to include social information resources. 

And finally, it came to my attention that the OJCC emergency management information line is not listed in the administrative order. This is because that innovative telephone messaging process was instigated by our Director of Administrative Services, Lisa Mustain, more recently. It did not exist when the 2008 order was issued. But, that emergency number is a great resource. If a customer finds themselves without access to the Internet, this affords up-to-date information with only a phone. 

Callers will never reach a person. This phone number (850.488.9675, extension 399) exists specifically so that any curiosity may be alleviated by simply calling our Tallahassee main office, dialing the emergency management extension, and listening to the pre-recorded message regarding closures. Significant effort is invested in keeping this recorded message current during weather and other emergencies throughout the state. 

So, just as the governor has employed a multi-faceted approach to disseminating information through technology and executive orders, your OJCC will refocus on improving our emergency information efforts. The new Administrative Order will bring clarity by encompassing office relocation. We will make it our goal to attempt as broad a dissemination as possible. 

I highly encourage attorneys, adjusters, risk managers, and other OJCC customers to save a copy of the new administrative order for future reference. Because, it is of course possible that some future emergency (power failure, cell phone failure, etc.) might preclude access to the Internet, or even to a copy saved on your computer. To maximize your chances for information and updates, follow us on Twitter (@fljcc), like us on Facebook (@FloridaOJCC). Tell us what other social media you use, and we will investigate integrating it into our communication process. 

We will be watching Matthew and monitoring its potential impact on Florida. The 2016 Emergency Closure Order is reproduced below. It will also be available on the OJCC website, on the "orders search" tab, under "administrative orders."

As we near the end of the 2016 hurricane season, be grateful that it was not more active and destructive. Take Hermine as a reminder of what nature can do, and think about how to be best prepared for next year. 

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