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No Comment from County on Plans for Hurricane Season Public Outreach


MANATEE COUNTY—The annual Hurricane Preparedness Expo hosted by Manatee County Government will not be held this year. In addition to skipping the Expo, the county opted not to host its traditional “Media Day,” which invites local media to the county’s Emergency Operations Center to help foster coordinated communication with the public during a weather event.

While other counties along Florida’s Central Gulf Coast have already held their Hurricane Expos and Media Days, Manatee County appears to be taking a different approach this year.

Since 2020, the county’s free Hurricane Preparedness Expo has been held weeks prior to the official start of hurricane season, which runs from June 1 through Nov. 30. Residents who attended previous Expo events would receive expert advice on keeping themselves, their families, and their property prepared and protected during the upcoming hurricane season.

Dozens of vendors, including insurance companies, mobile feeding units, non-profits, the American Red Cross, and first responders, together with officials of the county’s Public Safety Department and Emergency Management teams, participated in the event, providing presentations and answering residents’ questions.

The county has traditionally held “Media Day” at the EOC to foster coordinated and cooperative information sharing between county emergency management officials and local reporters. This event also allowed representatives of the local emergency management team to have their recommendations and storm preparation advice broadcast by local news media.

Click the video below to watch a recap from Media Day 2023. 

TBT utilized the county’s public information hotline on Monday by phoning 311. After being connected to a county representative, we were told the county “had decided not to hold” the Hurricane Expo this year because it was “doing things differently” and “reformatting” its hurricane preparedness public outreach.

The representative we spoke with said that other public information events on hurricane preparedness may be announced in the coming weeks, but the dates of any potential future events had not yet been determined. 

TBT repeatedly attempted to reach Manatee County’s Director of Public Safety, Jodie Fiske, and Chief of Emergency Management, Matt Myers, for comment on the decision to forego the typical hurricane preparedness public outreach. Likewise, requests for information about alternative events planned for public education and hurricane preparedness outreach went unanswered.

Forecasters Predict Active Storm Season

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts an above-average hurricane season this year. The official forecast projects 17-25 named storms, 8-13 of which will become hurricanes and 4-7 of which could potentially become major hurricanes.

Image credit: NOAA
Image credit: NOAA

While forecasters can analyze the weather factors that will be at play during a given hurricane season, it’s impossible to predict exactly where a hurricane may develop or make landfall this far in advance.

Responding to our request for comment, Sarasota ABC7 Chief Meteorologist Bob Harrigan told TBT via email that in his opinion, forecasters’ prediction of a hyper-active 2024 hurricane season matters less than whether your area is directly impacted by any single storm.

“It only takes one storm hitting our coast to make it an active season,” explained Harrigan.“Every season should be taken seriously no matter how many storms are forecast prior to the season. Have a plan and stay in touch with the local media and your local Emergency Management Offices.”

Harrigan explained that multiple factors play a role in this season’s forecast, “There is a 70% chance of La Nina (cooling of the eastern Pacific off the coast of Peru) being in place by the peak of hurricane season, which is Aug. through mid-Oct. This phenomenon creates less shear over the Atlantic, Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico, which allows the storms to grow and become much stronger storms.” 

Higher than average water temperatures in the Main Development Region (MDR)—the large area of waters east of the Caribbean—will fuel developing storm systems that originate or pass over the area.

We saw this back in 2017 when Irma and Maria passed over that area and became monster major storms,” Harrigan added.

Recently, Manatee County's Chief of Emergency Management Matt Myers was interviewed as part of Sarasota ABC7's 2024 Hurricane Special, In the Eye of the Storm. The educational production provides in-depth information about hurricanes and how residents can prepare and features advice from professionals and subject-matter experts. 

Florida Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie is also telling Floridians that they “need to have a plan.”

Speaking with West Palm WPTV ahead of this hurricane season, Guthrie said, "I want people to know that I don't need them to be ready for three, four, five, six storms, I want them to be ready for their storm."

The state’s Division of Emergency Management has been hard at work stockpiling supplies before the season’s first named storm develops, including millions of gallons of water, millions of meals, hundreds of generators, and tens of thousands of tarps.

Local Preparedness

While Manatee County appears to be taking a more relaxed approach to its public outreach and messaging ahead of this year’s hurricane season, other coastal counties in the region are not.

TBT reviewed local reporting, social media pages, and the websites of the six coastal counties in the Tampa Bay Region and found that Hurricane Preparedness Expos were held in Citrus, Hernando, Pasco, Pinellas, Hillsborough, and Sarasota Counties. Some counties offered additional in-person public education outreach ahead of this hurricane season.

Looking just outside the Tampa Bay Region at coastal counties both north and south of Tampa Bay, TBT confirmed that hurricane or disaster preparedness events were also held for the public in Highlands County, Charlotte County, and Lee County.

Locally, the City of Holmes Beach hosted a community forum on hurricane preparedness on May 22, and the Town of Longboat Key held a public Disaster Preparedness Seminar on June 5. TBT was unable to confirm whether any additional local cities may have also hosted disaster preparedness events.

On social media, Manatee County Government and its Public Safety Department have shared multiple public posts in recent months related to the upcoming hurricane season.

While the government’s main social media account only shared two posts since the beginning of April on the topic—one about the annual Emergency Operations Center (EOC) preparedness exercise and another reminding residents of the state’s Disaster Preparedness Sales Tax Holiday—the county’s Public Safety account had more than a dozen hurricane preparedness related postings.

Beginning in April, the social media accounts of the county’s Public Safety Department began alerting residents of the upcoming hurricane season and there were daily posts during the state’s official Hurricane Preparedness Week in May.

Overall, the Public Safety Department has shared nearly 20 posts related to hurricane and disaster preparedness since April 1, including information on the difference between evacuation and flood zones, planning for pets in an emergency, storm surge, making a disaster plan, and the 2024 All-Hazards Disaster Planning Guide.

Manatee County residents can locate hurricane and disaster preparedness information and other planning resources through the Manatee County Government’s website by visiting the Emergency Management webpage.

Here, residents can select various options from a menu, including instructions on how to build a disaster kit, emergency shelter information, and hazard mitigation, or they can download Public Safety publications. The #ManateeReady option takes visitors to a main emergency planning page that includes the county’s current emergency activation, burn ban status, the status of evacuation orders, and evacuation maps. 

Screenshot of the #ManateeReady webpage captured on June 13, 2024.
Screenshot of the #ManateeReady webpage captured on June 13, 2024.

The last menu option on the county’s Emergency Management webpage is titled “Recovery Plan.” Residents will be taken to the county’s Post-Disaster Redevelopment Plan (PDRP) page when selecting this option.

According to the county’s webpage, a PDRP “identifies policies, operational strategies, and roles and responsibilities for implementation that will guide decisions that affect long-term recovery and redevelopment of the community after a disaster.”

The PDRP addresses recovery topics, including “business resumption and economic redevelopment, housing repair and reconstruction, infrastructure restoration and mitigation, short-term recovery actions that affect long-term redevelopment, sustainable land use, environmental restoration, and financial considerations…”

The most recent PDRP was approved by commissioners in 2009. The county’s website details that in 2017, the University of Florida audited its PDRP. As a result of the audit, the county received 14 recommendations for improvement.

The bottom of the Recovery Plan page reads, “Manatee County officials recognize the importance of being prepared to recover quickly, while also recovering in a way that improves resiliency for future disasters. The County has started the process of updating the PDRP, which is scheduled to be complete by August 2022.”

However, an updated PDRP was never brought before the BOCC for approval and adoption. The Recovery Plan webpage includes links to the sections and appendixes of the plan as adopted in 2009.

Changes in the Division

Manatee County Government and its administration have experienced significant changes in recent years. From 2020 until now, the local government’s organization has been led by three different county administrators and as many interim county administrators.

Under current county administrator Charlie Bishop, the administrative cabinet has grown to include four deputy county administrators, and departments county-wide have expanded to include deputy director positions as well as department directors. Some divisions within the departments have also expanded their number of upper-management positions.

When former county administrator Scott Hopes accepted the commissioners’ appointment to lead the organization in 2021, he began reorganization efforts. The transition from predecessor Cheri Coryea to the new administration under Hopes’ leadership also led to a significant exodus of former staff who took with them years of institutional knowledge. While some staff were alleged to have been “forced out,” others reportedly resigned or retired.

Inclusive of the many changes experienced across the organization, the county’s Department of Public Safety and its Division of Emergency Management are among the units that have gained new leadership in recent years.

Since at least 2019, the Division of Emergency Management has included six funded positions: one division chief, one administrative/fiscal specialist, and four emergency management coordinators. It was led by its former chief, Steve Litschauer.

Public records show that from 2020 through the summer of 2022, all six of the division's allocated positions were filled. 

Under Hopes’ administration, some employees received dual assignments, serving in one role while also filling a newly created upper leadership position. For example, Emergency Management Chief Litschauer was given two roles when he was named the new deputy director of the Public Safety Department but also remained division chief.

Historically, only the county’s Public Works and Utilities departments had deputy director positions.

In 2022, not long after county administration added the deputy director position, then-department director Jacob Saur separated from the county government. It wouldn’t be until nearly a year later that the county would finally hire a permanent Public Safety Director to fill the vacancy made by Saur’s departure.

When Saur—a 20-plus-year employee of the public safety department who led public safety for more than two years—departed the organization, the effects rippled through the department’s divisions, including the Division of Emergency Management.

In the months following Saur’s separation from the organization, two established emergency management coordinators also voluntarily departed the county. Thomas Kitchen and Tristan Morath’s exits created two vacancies in the small six-position division.

Since leaving Manatee County Government, both Kitchen and Morath have continued to serve in emergency management. Kitchen is the Manager of Emergency Management for a state-wide hospital membership association in the northeast, and Morath is an Emergency Management Specialist for the Executive Office of the President of the United States. 

With the department without a director, Litschauer, the department deputy director and the Chief of Emergency Management, oversaw the reassignment of one of the communication coordinator positions as a deputy chief position for the small division.

By November 2022, Jodie Fiske was hired to serve as deputy chief, filling the newly created position. In May 2023, Fiske would be promoted to serve as the Director of Public Safety, filling the long-existing vacancy remaining from Saur’s departure.

Before joining Manatee County Government, Fiske worked for the Florida Division of Emergency Management as a Regional Emergency Management Coordination Team Manager. 

Fiske was made acting director of the department approximately two months after joining the county organization and was named the permanent director roughly seven months after first being hired.  

A year later, Fiske continues in the role, serving as the county’s Director of Public Safety.

In the fall of 2023, an emergency management coordinator position was added back to the division, bringing the total positions to seven. Two new emergency coordinators were hired—Kimberly Sharkey and Jeremy Giddens.

Only Sharkey remains with the division today, as Giddens has since departed the organization. 

With Fiske promoted to lead the department, emergency management coordinator Matthew Myers was promoted to Emergency Management Deputy Chief, filling Fiske’s former position.

Myers joined the organization in 2016, hired as an administrative specialist (aide) in public safety. In 2018, Myers became an emergency management coordinator.

The next big departure would be Litschauer, who was reportedly placed on administrative leave before ultimately leaving the organization. Litschauer’s exit came roughly five months after Fiske’s promotion to director, creating vacancies in the division chief and the department’s deputy director positions.

The county did not provide official statements about Litschauer’s departure or recognize him for his public service during a BOCC meeting. Litschauer lists his separation as a “retirement” on his LinkedIn profile.

The county’s Emergency Management Division would remain without a chief, led by its deputy chief, until this year. Deputy Chief Myers was promoted to Chief of the Division in March 2024, less than three months before the official start of hurricane season on June 1.

On May 1, Emergency Management Coordinator Joel Richmond was promoted to Deputy Chief, filling the vacancy created by Myers' promotion. Richmond is the longest-serving county government employee among all the division’s employees.

First hired in 1997, Richmond served in Parks and Recreation before taking a position with the county’s Animal Welfare Division. After serving nearly four years, Richmond advanced to Animal Services Supervisor before later joining the Emergency Management Division as a coordinator in 2017. In total, Richmond has served in county Emergency Management for eight years.

Currently, the county’s Emergency Management Division has seven authorized positions: an administrative/fiscal position, a chief, a deputy chief, and four emergency management coordinator positions.

The division is led by Chief Myers and Deputy Chief Richmond, overseeing one administrative/fiscal employee and one emergency management coordinator. Public records show that as of June 1, three of the four authorized coordinator positions were vacant. 

“Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail”

With Manatee County officials declining to respond to our inquiries, TBT reached former county public safety and emergency management employees to ask if they would willing to speak with us about the role local government plays in educating and informing the community about the importance of hurricane preparedness and what residents should do to prepare.

Former Manatee County Emergency Management Coordinator Tom Kitchen and former Public Safety Director Jacob Saur agreed to speak with TBT—both providing comments by email.

“Florida is no stranger to the ravages of tropical storms and hurricanes,” Saur began his email. “With an increase projected in intensified storms, the Sunshine State requires robust hurricane preparedness measures to safeguard lives, property, and the economy.”

Saur added, “It only takes one storm to have lasting impacts on you and your community. Knowing what to do in any disaster is critical to getting through an event.” 

Since leaving Manatee County Government, Saur has continued his career in public safety communications and emergency management. He currently serves as an Emergency Communications Administrator for a government agency in the Southeast.

Saur offered that understanding the risks is the first step in effectively preparing for a hurricane.

“Hurricanes bring not only high winds,” wrote Saur, “but also storm surge, heavy rainfall, and flooding, which can cause significant damage, even inland.”

Saur encourages residents to review the annual All-Hazards Disaster Preparedness Guide to learn about how to create an emergency plan, prepare your home or business, know your local resources, and learn about insurance and financial preparedness.  

“Hurricane preparedness in Florida is not just a personal responsibility but a community effort,” added Saur. “By understanding the risks, making a plan, assembling a hurricane kit, preparing your home, and staying informed, residents can significantly reduce the impact of hurricanes on life and property.”

Saur stressed, “The best time to prepare is now—long before a hurricane threatens.”

Emergency Management Professional Tom Kitchen—who served over nine years in Manatee County's Public Safety Department with half of that service as an Emergency Management Coordinator—also stressed the importance of preparedness.

“It is so important for local governments to approach this Hurricane Season proactively,” explained Kitchen, who holds a Master's in Emergency and Crisis Management. “It wasn’t that long ago that Manatee County narrowly avoided a direct hit from Hurricane Ian.”

Kitchen says close calls such as Hurricane Ian should serve as a wake-up call, reminding residents (and local governments) that complacency is not an effective option.

“The old saying ‘failing to plan is planning to fail' absolutely applies,” added Kitchen.

Kitchen suggested that well-resourced communities like Manatee County should utilize all of the tools available to engage and empower its most vulnerable populations.  Florida's fast-paced growth, with some of its newest residents never having prepared for hurricane season before, also makes public outreach at the local level important.

Kitchen explained, “Not everyone lives in an area that is unlikely to flood, and not everyone has the means to pick up and leave for days and weeks. Also, for those who may be struggling financially, buying a bulk cache of supplies may present a real challenge.” 

Kitchen added that county governments can connect residents with resources and help educate them on steps they can take based on their current situation.

“How people prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters comes down to equity,” Kitchen wrote. “You have to accept not everyone is protected in the same ways and that painting with a broad brush can create a system that allows (and almost encourages) people to fall through the cracks.”

Kitchen says that fixing that inequity begins with conversations with people in the neighborhoods where they live, at local schools, places of worship, and even at grocery stores.

“The county government has to make a concerted effort to reach these groups,” explained Kitchen. “To understand their specific needs, share information in the language(s) they speak, and then integrate them fully into its preparedness and response plans. Leaving anyone behind is just not acceptable.”

“It's an over-simplification,” he added, “but a safe community needs county-wide engagement, comprehensive assessment of risks and capabilities, community-based training and education programs, and robust coordination across agencies and private/non-profit partners.”

Kitchen pointed out that some of the challenges facing communities include inevitable things like aging infrastructure, but rapid growth can exasperate these challenges by placing increased demands on the infrastructure as it struggles to keep up.  

“A massive spike in population also complicates evacuations and sheltering,” said Kitchen. “Deregulation has a felt impact and can erode safeguards for people and the environment. Overdevelopment, especially in high-risk or hazard-prone areas, can increase the severity of disaster impacts.”

However, Kitchen highlighted that the presence of challenges should never become an excuse for inaction.

“Instead,” offered Kitchen, “improvement opportunities should underscore the imperative that this hurricane season and beyond should be met with deeply committed, community-wide efforts to prepare, mitigate risks, and enhance everyone's ability to respond effectively to emergencies. The consequences of falling short can be severe.”

Kitchen concluded his email by writing, “I would urge everyone to embrace personal preparedness, but also to become forces for broader community resilience. It's a collective commitment but we should all want to see our neighbors be safe as much as ourselves.”

Dawn Kitterman is a staff reporter and investigative journalist for The Bradenton Times covering local government news. She can be reached at dawn.kitterman@thebradentontimes.com.


5 comments on this item

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  • Dianna

    Other than George Kruse, why would Manatee County government want to foster any coordinated communication with the public? The county has done everything within their power to reduce public knowledge by no longer holding presentations, by no longer offering information on who works there, the power structure, and by limiting public comment. When you turn off the ability of the public to comment on social media you vastly reduce the public's ability to tell those in charge how they really feel about the job the commissioners and county government and its staff are doing. Most written public comments submitted to the agenda, especially if citizens question anything, are buried inside hundreds of pages of revised documentation added to the agenda and not placed on the link where public comment should be placed. Of course, all those late items are added without background information and submitted after the window for public comment has closed. Is this done on purpose? ABSOLUTELY

    Saturday, June 15 Report this

  • Cat L

    Would want to cut in to the BOCC's pandering-to-developer time, now would we?

    Sunday, June 16 Report this

  • Debann


    Sunday, June 16 Report this

  • pdsinc

    Sounds like the Puppet Masters do not want attention drawn to the possibility and probably that damaging storms could wreak havoc in paradise and cut profits.

    Sunday, June 16 Report this

  • andreart

    Very disturbing to learn no major public outreach to the Community. This seasons forecast is not good.

    Leaders, lead and not happening in this case. Nice to post updates but what about our ederly and less fortunate that have no access to social media?

    County Administrator needs to direct his staff to communicate with ALL the cities and unincorporated areas of the county emergency Information out, asap.

    C. Whitmore

    Sunday, June 16 Report this