Hurricane season begins June 1, 2018. It is time to think and prepare. A recount of 2017 may help us remember.
On September 5, 2017, the Florida Office of Judges of Compensation Claims began to post regarding predictions for Hurricane Irma. Thereafter, that post was periodically updated for twenty days, concluding September 25, 2017. Those posts illustrate the Irma impact on operating a business, our example that may or may not be typical. Some were affected less, and obviously some were impacted profoundly.
As an aside, the real impact of hurricanes is human. These storms disrupt lives, destroy property, and touch people in a thousand ways. There are impacts on home and family, friends, activities, and more. There is anticipation, anguish, and recovery. Or, often there is anticipation, anguish and relief. Sometimes, they threaten us and then land elsewhere. But, these storms are a reality for Floridians. Unable to change that, we must do what we can to accept that and prepare.
In preparation for hurricane seasons past, I have written posts including The Waffle House Index, Time to Prepare for Hurricane Season, It is That Time of Year Again, and more. And, in encouraging preparedness for the 2018 season, I add this documentation of what happened in 2017, for perspective. Each Floridian has her or his storm. Mine will hopefully forever be Ivan (2004); for some it was Andrew (1992), Jeanne (2004), Francis, (2004), Katrina (2005), the list goes on. The following is intended as a cautionary tale, recognizing that for the OJCC things could have been much worse in Irma (2017), and for many businesses and people, it was absolutely worse.
Back in 2006, the OJCC adopted an office closure policy, and updated it periodically. The current version of the Closure Policy was published in 2016. Essentially, since 2006, we have followed the lead of the Circuit Court in the county in which a particular OJCC office is located. Thus, if the Circuit Courts in Leon County close, then the OJCC office in Tallahassee closes. It is a policy designed to be transparent, and easy for the public to follow. But what happens when information on court closures stops flowing?
Last September 7, we began announcing closures due to Irma. The deferral to Circuit Courts resulted immediately in closure of Ft. Myers, Miami, and Tampa for Thursday and Friday; Ft. Lauderdale Palm Beach, Port St. Lucie, and Sebastian for Thursday, Friday and Monday; Gainesville, Jacksonville, Orlando, and St. Petersburg for Friday and Monday; Daytona for Friday, Monday and Tuesday; Lakeland for Monday. By the "closed court" policy, 13 of 17 offices noticed to close. But, by the end of the day, we had an Executive Order closing all 17 offices on Friday. The storm was large, predicted paths varied, Florida was in most of the various predicted paths, and it was time to make last-minute preparations.
On September 10, Sunday, Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys as a category four (130-156 mph winds). Later Sunday, it made landfall again in Marco Island as a category three (111-129). Floridians had watched the storm through its path across the Caribbean, hands had wrung, predictions had been made, and fears had riveted many, paralyzed some. So, offices had closed, we had hunkered down, and watched the weather channel. Some predictions likened her to Andrew, and fears for southeast Florida were on the news. As she made landfall, we sighed relief for Miami and Ft. Lauderdale but feared for Ft. Myers and others.
The Florida panhandle was worried that Irma would remain in the gulf, regain strength, and come ashore again. But, the panhandle was spared for once, with Irma instead travelling straight north from Marco Island to Lake City, and then to Georgia and beyond. She appeared to head right up I-75. Sighs of relief were heard. The much prognosticated "Miami landfall" and the comparisons to Andrew had not come true. But in our relief, we feared for Ft. Myers, Tampa, St. Petersburg, Lakeland and Gainesville. With facilities and people all over, for me there is worry with any path.
Monday dawned sunny and mild in Pensacola, and I began to assess status. With automated equipment to answer phones, and with our videoteleconference system, I began checking in on offices, to ascertain electrical service. I began checking in with judges regarding their safety and well-being, gathering their understanding of their respective staff's situations as I did. I was as pleased as anyone that the "Miami landfall" had not come to pass. My initial results were mixed. I was ecstatic when the Miami phone system answered, power was on! I got that response a lot, but not in cities like Lakeland and Jacksonville. The initial news was not catastrophic, but there was plenty of unknown about which to worry.
Monday brought other challenges. Various court websites across the state ceased to respond. Those websites reside on servers and those servers require electricity. The Supreme Court server in Tallahassee went off-line and it became challenging to find information on court closures. With a policy in place that is dependent upon the status of courthouse closures, frustration reigned with those resources constrained. The OJCC began publishing court closure information on this blog, gathered in no small part from monitoring social media. See, as servers went down social media remained. Courts and news media published on social media and information flowed, just in a different format.
Monday also brought news of flooding in Jacksonville and Miami. The pictures were disturbing. For Jacksonville, the flooding was the worst in a century. The hurricane's path over land, combined with its size, had pulled huge volumes of seawater into the St. John's river, the high water combining with volumes of rain and creating difficulties and issues for many.
It is easy to fall into the mindset that only storm itself is a danger and threat, but effects can linger. For example, a week after Irma, there were issues with flooding in the Gainesville area. All that rain to the north fell onto fields and yards fed into creeks, which fed into rivers, which later crested from the inundation of rain. The drainage created issues for many spared by the storm itself. We think about the "what if" of the wind and rain of the storm as it hits, but we have to think about the aftermath as well.
The aftermath is not always nature either. There are trees to cut, limbs and debris to remove, holes in roofs, broken windows, cars without fuel, grocery stores closed, and more. I know many who lament the storm and immediate effects, but somehow some of us can forget the aftermath sometimes. Restoration of power is a challenge in the best storm circumstances (minor storm, impact on single community). The aftermath is magnified when multiple communities require restoration, and more so still when a storm like Irma impacts virtually every county. There are only so many power crews, trucks, etc. And, they can only each be in one place at a time.
On September 22, 2017 power was finally restored to Ft. Lauderdale. That was an office at which I got an answer on September 11, when I began assessing. For the first few days, neither Ft. Lauderdale's or Miami's offices were a concern. Both had power. As we focused on other Districts, and as they began to reopen, the power failed in Ft. Lauderdale and we learned that the Miami building had suffered significant air conditioner damage. Having initially breathed a sigh of relief regarding southeast Florida, those communities again became the primary concern.
Daily calls to Florida Power and Light (FP&L) had become the norm. Judge Lewis made daily trips through the debris to monitor the Ft. Lauderdale District status. Each day we spoke and concluded "maybe tomorrow." We shared frustration as electricity was restored among our neighbors, but remained elusive for us. Herculean efforts were attempted in Miami, with portable air conditioners, relocation contingencies, and more. But those efforts also led to a series of frustrations and disappointments.
On Friday, September 22, 2017 the Florida Department of Management Services (DMS) confirmed that the Rhode Building (Miami) could in fact open the following week. The DMS had brought in a trailer-mounted air conditioning system that ran like a huge generator and pushed cooled air through the building. They had innovated, re-engineered, and overcome. As pleased as we were, Ft. Lauderdale still lacked power. Alone among the Districts, alone among the buildings on that street, Ft. Lauderdale lacked power. And, we checked it every few minutes.
Later that morning, FPL tweeted (I was then following FP&L on Twitter) that Broward County (Ft. Lauderdale) was 100% restored. Having failed to get a voice mail to answer minutes earlier, I was skeptical. But, I called again and the phone system answered. The OJCC may have been the very last power restored in Ft. Lauderdale, we were certainly among the last. But, the real point is that the power was finally on.
The truth is that people have many concerns after a storm. A workers' compensation mediation or hearing may be the least of someone's worries. As a system, we have to remain cognizant that many people are dealing with human problems, personal challenges, and that recovery can take time. If people need accommodation after a disaster, we must respect that and be reasonable. It is not that the OJCC needs to be open for the sake of being open, it is that we need to be open and ready to deal with people's concerns and workers' compensation issues when they are ready.
As a system, we must be both conscious that various people will be delayed, unprepared, or distracted, and conscious that people will need us. They will need us to effectuate their progress with orders and approvals, to facilitate their discussions through mediation, to hear and decide their disputes. In being ready and prepared to fulfill our function, we constantly remind ourselves that some of those distracted and in need are the very people that make the OJCC great, our staff, mediators, and judges. We are challenged to simultaneously recover and restore personally, while we reopen and facilitate progress and a return to normalcy for our customers.
In these regards, we are likely no different than any business following a disaster. Law firms, insurance companies, doctor's offices, and more all faced issues with power, premises damage, and employee's personal challenges. If you have lived through your life hurricane, you have stories, memories, and usually a heartfelt desire not to do it again. But, it is imperative that we remember those experiences and use what we learned to prepare.
The fact is, another serious hurricane will hit Florida. Where, when, and how strong are all unknowns. But, we learn from the past. We plan and prepare. There are many resources like Ready.gov, FEMA, and the National Hurricane Center. Prepare now for the 2018 season that starts June 1, 2018. As weather.com reminds us, storms can come anytime, and 2018 is predicted to be an active season.
Today is the time to "follow" or "like" or otherwise connect with your local courts and @fljcc through social media. Think now about how your business and family can be best preserved in the event you find yourself in the path of the storm. Where will you go, what will you take, when will you leave, how will you communicate? The resources above are more detailed, but the time to think "what if" is not when a storm is on your doorstep. The time for "what if" is now, in the sunshine and cool breezes of spring. Think about "what if" and make your plans. Be prepared for the storm, the aftermath, and the challenges of your recovery.