HOLMES AND WASHINGTON COUNTIES - The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts a 40-percent chance of a normal or close to normal, 30-percent chance of an above normal and a 30-percent chance of below normal hurricane season. Although those percentages seem as if they are calling for a very average season, it is not easy to forget - at a 2018 prediction of a 75-percent chance of a normal season - last year's season brought a catastrophic category 5 Hurricane Michael to the Panhandle.
Local emergency management officials have taken steps toward greater preparedness this year and advise the public to take the 2019 hurricane season very seriously.
Hurricane Season started Saturday and ends Nov. 30.
"All it takes is one," said Holmes County Emergency Operations Center Director John Hagans. "That's what we found out with Michael."
Hagans said, in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, his office has taken diligent steps to identify all of its assets, mapped out items that need improvement - such as wastewater and sewage treatment plants, and - as of Tuesday morning - had completed the steps necessary to secure Bonifay K-8 as a special needs shelter.
"Anytime you're in the Gulf Coast region, then you take it seriously," Washington County Fire Services Coordinator Rick Kerr, whose office in out of and coordinates with the county's emergency management, said before the start of last year's season. "For example, (subtropical storm Alberto) spun up before the hurricane season even started. If the Gulf waters were a bit hotter, it could have intensified to a category 1 hurricane."
"So, it can happen at any time," he said.
NOAA predicts a 9 to 15 named storms (winds of 39 miles per hour or higher), of which four to eight could become hurricanes (winds of 74 miles per hour or higher) and two to four major hurricanes (category 3, 4 or 5; with winds of 111 miles per hour or higher). An average hurricane season produces 12 named storms, of which 6 become hurricanes, including 3 major hurricanes, according to NOAA.com.
Both counties open emergency shelters when a state of emergency is communicated or declared by state officials. Call the respective offices for more information. From lists of local shelter location to storm tracking charts to special needs registry, which provides special assistance to individuals with special needs, the local offices have a wealth of resources to help residence get prepared.
"If something happens ... we hope that nothing does - the goal of this office is to provide the highest protection for the citizens and mitigation after something happens and response during the event," Hagans said. "Our goal is prepare for as much as we can."
National public service website Ready.gov offers a few basic preparedness tips: have an evacuation plan and route, assemble go-bags that include flashlights, batteries, cash, first aid supplies, medications and copies of critical information, plan for adequate supplies (waters, nonperishable food, etc.) if you decide to stay home, and be sure to sign up for local emergency alerts.
Both counties have free weather alert systems to keep the public aware of precautions.
To sign up for free weather alerts in Holmes County, call the county's EOC to be manually signed up. Go to www.AlertWashington.com to sign up for Washington County alerts.
Washington County Emergency Management is located at 2300 Pioneer Road in Chipley; phone number is 850-638-6203. Holmes County Emergency Management is located at 1001 E. Highway 90 in Bonifay; 850-547-1112.