By John A. Titkanich, Jr., AICP, ICMA-CM, Innovation and Performance Division Director
St. Lucie County
The viral pandemic Coronavirus (COVID-19) has challenged federal, state and local government’s conventional disaster management; and more specifically, disaster response and recovery. A viral pandemic poses challenges to governments at all levels, and local governments are on the frontlines in the trenches. This pandemic incident is unprecedented and unique in that recovery planning and implementation is occurring while response measures are still very much active and ongoing; such as, while recovery is underway County Health Departments will still be monitoring COVID-19 cases, conducting contact tracing and engaged in continued testing. Additionally, emergency operation centers still will be required, as increased testing occurs, to manage the incident and resource requests as the need for personal protective equipment mounts with the reopening and restoration of government facilities and operations.
Local government managers in Florida are no stranger to responding to natural and/or man-made disaster. We are well versed on the conventional emergency management process of mitigation, preparation, response and recovery. Conversely, with the COVID-19 pandemic disaster, what does recovery look like, do we fully know all the impacts and how long will recovery take. Moreover, it is critical to recognize recovery may last several months or it may linger in phases until such time the virus is contained, vaccines are developed and residents are vaccinated.
Addressing public health and economic hardship to our residents and business community are central to recovering from this pandemic event. Looming on the horizon lies the potential of renters being evicted, homeowners defaulting on mortgages and businesses closing permanently. The landscape of our counties and cities may very will look different for years to come. One certainty, COVID-19 has challenged and required all local governments, even experienced Florida counties and cities, to reevaluate what disaster recovery looks like and what measures will be formulated and implemented. A disaster of this magnitude, one which has impacted all 50 states, all 67 Florida counties and more than 400 Florida cities, towns and villages, leave local government officials to fundamentally rethink disaster management and recovery operations. Traditionally, disaster recovery centers (DRCs) are set up and staffed by local, state and federal officials offering assistance in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Unfortunately, considering the resource constraints nationwide, it is safe to assume DRCs will not exist to provide relief to our residents and businesses as they seek to recover.
Thus, during these challenging times of social distancing, face coverings and environmental controls to protect our employees and those impacted by COVID-19, local governments must consider a disaster recovery plan specific to the challenges of this viral pandemic. As local government managers, our first and foremost responsibility is to protect our employees for their safety and well-being; as well as, to ensure continuity of operations.
In St. Lucie County our recovery planning team developed an incident specific COVID-19 Pandemic Disaster Recovery Plan anticipating the known impacts, potential challenges and actions to be implemented, while also being ready to respond to the impacts yet to be known. Thus, our plan was developed to be scalable, flexible and adaptable, a necessity in uncertain times. This is especially important considering NOAA forecasters are predicting an above average hurricane season. One certainty is our residents and businesses will expect, once the COVID-19 disaster is perceived to be over and we are re-opened, local governments and community partners to marshal the necessary resources to respond and initiate the appropriate recovery activities to return the community to a sense of normalcy.
Considering the logistical and public health challenges of standing up a physical Disaster Recovery Center, a critical component of our recovery efforts is St. Lucie County was working collaboratively with the cities of Port St. Lucie and Fort Pierce to develop an operational plan to stand up a virtual disaster recovery center, or as we call it, the Community Resource Center (CRC). The CRC is a virtual hub of recovery related information for individuals and businesses that includes all identified local, state, federal and non-profit recovery resources as well as other pertinent COVID-19 information. A resident or business owner of St. Lucie County can access the CRC at www.RecoverStLucie.org. Additionally, the CRC includes specific tabs for our municipal partners as well as links to Port St. Lucie’s and Fort Pierce’s websites. Our business community can also access the Economic Development Council of St. Lucie County’s Virtual Business Recovery Center (VBRC) at yourEDC.com/VBRC which includes business specific recovery resources, business assistance services, webinars, virtual business roundtables, consulting and training services.
Unique to both the CRC and VBRC websites are the plans which provide for that scalability should we need to stand up a physical recovery center. The CRC is also a vital resource recovery tool for our staff managing and taking calls through our public information line. Subject to the demands and needs of our residents and businesses, we stand ready to set up physical recovery center locations. Website traffic data and tracking calls to either our public information line or the EDC business assistance line will guide the decision process on whether physical recovery centers are warranted, and what needs are most paramount. Equally important is keeping the CRC and VBRC current, as additional recovery resources and information are identified the websites are updated. In doing so, this enables us to immediately provide virtual recovery services while limiting direct public contact and reducing the workload demand on staff.