Looking Back a Year After Hurricane Irma: Interview with Bryan Koon, Florida’s Former Director of Emergency Management

September 10, 2018, marks the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Irma hitting the Florida mainland as a Category 4 storm. It caused the worst flooding in the state’s history and killed 75 Floridians. The damage to Florida has been estimated at $50 billion, and the state is still recovering.

This first anniversary of Irma was the occasion for an interview with IEM’s Vice President of International Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Bryan Koon. He joined IEM in late 2017, after having served as director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management from 2011 to 2017, including at the time of Hurricane Irma. His unique perspective is rich in lessons learned to prepare for future catastrophic storms.

Where were you when Irma struck and what are your most vivid memories of the experience?

I had actuated the state’s Emergency Operations Center six days in advance and was there monitoring the storm’s progress. It was during those few days before the storm that we evacuated 6.8 million people and opened close to 700 emergency shelters around the state. We activated almost the entire Florida National Guard and closed the state’s schools and colleges. We also drew upon our emergency management compacts with neighboring states so we could pool the region’s resources.

On the human level, the mood was one of fear and uncertainty, but not panic. It was the state’s first really big hurricane since 2005, and it was a Category 5 storm at sea as it approached us. All of my colleagues in state government maintained a calm resolve to use all the tools at a hand and benefit from all of our lessons learned from past storms. We had as an added benefit the fact that the public had learned, too. They fully respected the potential damage of a storm this strong and followed the state’s evacuation and sheltering instructions.

What is the state of Florida’s recovery as of now?

The state is doing well, and the recovery is off to a good start because of the level of the state’s preparation. But there is a lot of long-term recovery ahead.

In its coverage at the time, The New York Times described Florida as “hurricane hardened” by comparison to the rest of the Caribbean area that Irma struck: Do you agree with that assessment and is there room for further improvement?

The New York Times was correct. After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, we strengthened the state’s building codes to make structures better withstand high winds. The New York Times wrote that as a result, “The state came to be seen as an international leader in storm preparation.” Andrew also prompted the state to thoroughly professionalize hurricane response and become a model for other states. What’s important now, is that we never allow ourselves to feel as though the job is done. Government personnel turnover over time, and we can never forget our lessons learned or become complacent. We can always further harden our homes, buildings and infrastructure.

Irma set some records, it persisted for three days as a category 5 storm and it sustained 185 m.p.h. winds for 37 hours straight. Are hurricanes changing and how should we change to prepare for them?

You can’t make predictions based on one storm or just one hurricane season. However, the trend is increasing strength and frequency of hurricanes. That means that as the state’s population increases, as sea level continues to rise, and as climate change continues, we must meet the challenge. Mitigation of our public infrastructure is especially important.

How much of hurricane preparation involves hardening for them in advance, and how much involves the steps taken as it approaches and arrives such as effective evacuations and sheltering, adequate public safety personnel on the scene, and citizen advisories?

Both aspects are important. The work done in advance, or “blue sky” work, is crucial for being as ready as possible once a storm approaches and makes landfall. Florida covers both bases well and keeps improving as we incorporate lessons learned after each storm.

In the ideal world, with money no object, what would Florida’s hurricane preparedness look like?

Of course, money always is an object, but ideally, we would move people further back from the shore, place power lines underground and waterproof them, build more storm shelters around the state, further improve the public warning and communications system, improve hurricane forecasting, and further harden homes.

Given the limitations of the real world, how might that be scaled back to what Florida can afford?

For now, the priorities are continued building code enforcement, preparing infrastructure for storm surge, and investing in the public communications system.

Eldercare facilities proved to be especially vulnerable. How might state officials address that?

Florida’s population will only continue to age, so this is important to address now. These facilities need to fully develop their hurricane response plans. They need to keep backup generators on hand, and they all need to establish better direct communications to their closest Emergency Operations Center.

After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Florida instituted some of the nation’s strictest building codes so that homes could better withstand future storms, the value of which Irma bore out. Another approach to hurricane resistance coming out of academia involves smart landscaping such as “living shorelines” that use natural vegetation buffers to absorb storm surge and “floating streets” that rise as the groundwater rises. What are the relative merits of these approaches and do you see a future for this new thinking?

The answer is: employ all of the above. Traditional preparation methods are proven and fill a vital role, and innovative approaches are also worth exploring. Some of them will pan out and make a real contribution to preparedness, others won’t, but now is a good time to start innovating.

Looking back on the storm and its recovery, what are some things that Floridians can be proud of?

They have plenty to be proud of. They heeded the threat and followed evacuation instructions. They took care of themselves and their neighbors. They paid attention to safety notices before, during, and after the storm. All this saved lots of lives, both themselves and first responders. And it is important for them to remember that while Irma was bad, it should not serve as the upper benchmark of bad. Strong as it was, it missed the state’s largest population centers. All Floridians must stay on their toes and plan for an Irma times ten one day.


Author: Brian Feeney, Ph.D., Media and Communications Specialist, IEM