Miami-Dade County

When a hurricane hits Miami, new drones may be checking doors to see who needs help

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez displays the “OK” side of new door hangers the county is mailing to more than 1 million households for use after a hurricane. The other side of the placard states “HELP,” and is designed to alert rescuers that someone inside needs assistance. The county says drones can pick up the rescue requests as well. Gimenez shared the door hangers at a May 29, 2019, press conference on the June 1 start of the Atlantic hurricane season. The press conferene was held at the county’s emergency-operations center in Doral.
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez displays the “OK” side of new door hangers the county is mailing to more than 1 million households for use after a hurricane. The other side of the placard states “HELP,” and is designed to alert rescuers that someone inside needs assistance. The county says drones can pick up the rescue requests as well. Gimenez shared the door hangers at a May 29, 2019, press conference on the June 1 start of the Atlantic hurricane season. The press conferene was held at the county’s emergency-operations center in Doral. dhanks@miamiherald.com

Miami-Dade is mailing out more than 1 million door hangers residents can use to signal they need help after a hurricane and will deploy drones to help spot anyone who needs to be rescued.

This is the first time residents are being asked to display the placards after a storm. One side has “HELP” in red, and the other “OK” in green. They’re designed to give rescue crews a quick way to spot homes in distress in a hurricane’s aftermath who couldn’t otherwise call for paramedics or police. For areas left isolated by devastation, drones can pick up the safety checks from the sky, said Frank Rollason, Miami-Dade’s emergency director.

A drone “will be able to get out and survey these areas a lot quicker than we may be able to get to by vehicle or on foot because of downed trees, power lines, and so forth,” Rollason said Wednesday at a county press conference to highlight the official start of the six-month Atlantic hurricane season on June 1. “The drone will be able to pick up on these signs, and be able to tell us by GPS what the location is of a place that has a Help sign up.“

This is the first year that Miami-Dade is including the door hangers in the hurricane guide mailed to more than 1 million households. Instructions tell residents to place the “OK” placard on a front door facing the street after a storm if no assistance is needed, and “HELP” if someone inside is in trouble.

After a quiet 2018, Miami-Dade is still waiting to test the storm protocols put in a place after a messy evacuation process during 2017’s Hurricane Irma scare. The massive storm at one point was forecast to deliver Category 5 winds to downtown Miami, and Mayor Carlos Gimenez on Sept. 7 ordered the largest evacuation in the county’s history.

Irma ended up weakening and the eye shifted to Florida’s West Coast. But the scare exposed logistical shortcomings in Miami-Dade’s storm plan, with the county unable to open enough emergency shelters to quickly accommodate an evacuation order covering about 600,000 people along the coast and in lower-lying areas to the west of the waterfront.

Residents waited in line for shelters that weren’t open, some shelters turned people away after hitting capacity, and Miami-Dade had to race to open more space for animals as pet owners quickly overwhelmed the pet-friendly options during Irma.

After Irma, the Gimenez administration dropped the county’s longstanding practice of relying on the Red Cross to manage the early phases of the shelter program by dispatching volunteers to the first evacuation centers opened by the county. Instead, Miami-Dade is having thousands of county employees serve as shelter staffers.

“We have the capacity for over 100,000 evacuees,” Gimenez said at Wednesday’s press conference in the county’s emergency operations center in Doral. “I don’t think Miami-Dade County has ever been better prepared for a hurricane than we are today.”

He stood before a jumbo map showing Miami-Dade’s five evacuation zones, with the red A Zone closest to the sea and the first to get the call to leave. In Irma, Gimenez called for zones A, B, and C to evacuate — the first time all three zones were covered by an evacuation order.

Gimenez emphasized that evacuating residents only need to head inland, away from risky flood areas endangered by storm surge. “You do not need to leave the entire state of Florida,” he said. “Remember: You run from water, you hide from wind.”

He said the county has beefed up the shelter budget to secure more cots and stored food. Residents can check whether they live in an evacuation zone by calling the county’s 311 information, or searching for an address at miamidade.gov/hurricane or on the “Ready Miami-Dade” storm app. The app also can guide residents to nearby shelters and bus stops for shuttles heading to them.

The Gimenez administration is heading into hurricane season without a fire chief, the position that oversees the emergency management agency. The prior chief, Dave Downey, retired on May 17, and Gimenez hasn’t named a permanent replacement. Downey entered the county’s deferred retirement program five years ago, which required him to leave the fire chief post in 2019.

A Downey deputy, assistant chief Arthur Holmes Jr., is running the department as acting chief. The mayor, a former Miami fire chief, said he is considering five or six internal candidates for the job.

“I’m going through a process,” he said after the press conference. “When I’m ready to name the fire chief, I’ll name the fire chief. ... I’m not going to hurry up to pick somebody [just] to hurry up.”

Rollason started his job last summer, and described the drone program as new for the Fire Department. He said the door tags, also new for 2019, will be quick alerts for squads of police, paramedics and others assigned to scout damage after a storm passes. With phone lines and cellular service often disabled after severe weather, he said, the paper placards may be the best way to call for help.

“There are landfall teams that are in place that will be at fire stations and other county facilities that will immediately go out after a storm to perform damage assessments,” he said. “If all communication is down, this is something that will catch the attention of first-responders and the drone right away.”

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