Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Liquid Sunshine State

I got back from my tour of the Southwest on Saturday, July 18. In the intervening 17 days, Florida's west coast has seen more rain than many cities get in a year.
Yes, that's a lot of rain
While the image is a little small to make out, the magenta area that encompasses the Tampa Bay area northward has received more than 10 inches of rain in the past 14 days. Embedded in there are areas of purple, which have received more than 15 inches of rain, and, yes, a small area of white in northern Pinellas and southern Pasco counties which has seen more than 20 inches.

So, what does an area that gets that kind of rain look like?

I'm glad you asked.

Roads were turned into canals by the heavy rain
Even in an area that is used to tropical downpours, this kind of heavy rain is just too much for the sandy soil to bear, and flash flooding was just about everywhere.

As I commuted into work yesterday morning, the skies opened with the heaviest rain of the two-week deluge, and the Emergency Operations Centers across the Tampa Bay area opened to tackle the challenges posed by these powerful storms. What messaging do you think we went with?

Needless to say, the primary message was turn around, don't drown - the National Weather Service's effort to educate drivers to not drive through water of unknown depth. With that being said, fire and law enforcement officials still had to help stranded motorists push their cars out of the floods.

Firefighters wade in to give stranded drivers a push
Another message we pushed was to avoid contact with the floodwaters. After all, things like - I dunno - sewage may be spilling into the waters, making them a less than pleasant place to recreate in.

No, this isn't Venice...
And, yet, we found lots of people boating, swimming, jet skiing and canoeing in the flood waters. Hmm....

Finally, we wanted residents to know where to turn for more information, and we found that on our social media platforms and the comments sections of the news outlets, many expressed their frustration about not being able to get information when they needed it.

If there is anything I have learned from my 24 years as a public information professional, it's that every time you do something, you need to learn a little bit and apply it so you don't make the same mistakes over and over again.  Unlike a hurricane, this flooding hasn't caused catastrophic, widespread damage across the entire area or a significant loss of life.

To achieve what we set our minds to, we are building a list of how we can improve our response to better communicate with our residents. We plan on using this experience as a wake-up call to our residents as well, reminding them that they have a responsibility to prepare themselves for when the heavy rains return or a hurricane comes calling.

Only by examining how we do our job can we find our points to improve.

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

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