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What we’ve learned: Bay Co. Emergency Operations Center

What We've Learned

BAY COUNTY, Fla. (WMBB)- The Bay County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) was the hub of Hurricane Michael related response.

The EOC was at full activation as the third strongest hurricane to ever hit the United States made landfall in the Panhandle.

“A group of us were standing at the doors at one point watching the wind and the rains and at that point, several trees broke and some power lines came down and they immediately put the hurricane shutters down so at that point we were in like a cocoon and it was eerily quiet, actually,” said Bay Co. Commission Chairman, Philip “Griff” Griffitts.

The Bay County emergency operations center is located in Southport just off of Highway 77. The center is miles inland, but those inside during the storm still felt the wrath just like everyone else. 

However, for those inside the EOC, it wasn’t a time to sulk in the damage, it was time to get to work.

“There were about 50-75 people working 24 hours a day as the days progressed and I think at last count, we had 750 people a day working at the EOC,” said Griffitts. 

Records show that more than 3,000 people signed into the EOC in the days before the storm, and the weeks to follow. The list included a variety of task forces and emergency responders all specialized in disaster relief. 

“Their dedication is very important. To watch these people come in and do what they do and they’re all very skilled in their professions and we were very lucky to have them right there at the EOC after the storm for sure,” said Griffitts.

Even with help, both locally and nationally, there were still items to improve on. Along with improving communications for the future, officials are also making smaller changes when it comes to handling relief supplies.  “We learned a lot of lessons about logistics. If a truck showed up with ten pallets of water, we needed to make sure a forklift was on site to make sure those palettes could be unloaded safely and timely,” he said. 

The EOC quickly turned from an information hub to a base camp. The center housed anywhere from 900 to 1,200 people at a time. Bay County Commission Chairman, Philip Griffitts, spent most of the days following the storm at the EOC and just from his time there, he noted a few things to improve on.  

“We need to have redundancy in just about every utility that we own, whether it’s water, power or communications, we need to have redundancy in all those avenues so that the recovery effort can be a little faster,” he said. 

Chief Mark Bowen, who has been in the emergency services field for years and dealt with disaster response, said the outpour of help was incredible in the weeks to follow but one thing would make the process even smoother. 

“As many people as are willing and able, have to be trained in the national incident management system,” said Bay Co. Chief of Emergency Services, Mark Bowen.

By definition, the National Incident Management System helps guide all levels of government, as well as civilians, to work together to respond and recover from disastrous incidents. 

“All you have to do is google FEMA incident command national incident management system, and anybody, anywhere who has access to a computer, and if you don’t have access to a computer, you can go to the Bay County library and use one… They can begin to take FEMA courses in incident command,” said Bowen. 

Improving logistics and encouraging residents to take part in the action are just a few of the lessons learned from the storm. While there are things to improve on, officials with the county and EOC said they feel they handled the situation as best they could and plan to share what they’ve learned with the rest of the country. 

“There will be other storms and there will be other communities and hopefully it won’t be as bad as what we faced, but we’ll be there to help them out along the way,” said Griffitts. 

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