As Florida braces to potentially be hit by a rare November hurricane, Eden Prairie Fire Chief Scott Gerber is still processing his recent trip to Florida to help with response efforts following the massive and destructive Category 4 Hurricane Ian.
In late September, Gerber was deployed to DeSoto County, north of Fort Myers, as part of the Minnesota All Hazards Incident Management Team. “This is state-to-state mutual aid,” explained Gerber.
“The state has great resources, great people to deploy,” he noted, adding that Minnesota sent upwards of 80 individuals to Florida to offer help.
This was Gerber’s fifth such deployment. He was last sent to the Florida Keys in 2017 following Hurricane Irma.
This time, Gerber led an eight-person team representing fire, emergency management, public works and healthcare personnel from Allina Health Systems, Anoka and Carlton counties and the cities of St. Anthony, Bloomington, Cross Lake and Chanhassen.
High winds, flood damage
The group left for Florida on Sept. 30 (just two days after Ian made landfall in Florida) and returned to Minnesota on Oct. 16. After three days on the road, they arrived in DeSoto County, an inland county of primarily agricultural land with a population of about 36,000.
The county did not suffer the level of damage that areas like Fort Myers and Sanibel Island did but it was still impacted by high winds and flooding. “The Peace River and Horse Creek both reached historic flood levels,” said Gerber.
Gerber’s team spent 12 days working with a regional team in response and recovery operations, as well as coordinating efforts at the emergency operations center. That included helping build a base camp to provide meals, parking and bathroom/shower/sleeping facilities for 500 individuals.
“We’re never there to take over,” said Gerber. “We’re there to support what’s happening locally.”
It’s not a glamorous job — Gerber noted that they initially slept on cots in the county board room — but it offers priceless lessons in emergency response.
“We’re not going to have a hurricane here, but we can bring back lessons learned in how to manage volunteers and donations, how to run an emergency management center, etc,” said Gerber.
“There’s nothing like first-hand experience.”
Gerber said his team had several first-timers. What they learned in Florida will undoubtedly be shared in their respective communities as they develop and refine their own emergency preparedness plans.
It doesn’t hurt to bank some good karma, either. “If you can make someone’s day better — even just a little — calm a bit of the chaos, it’s worth it.”
“If we can help someone out now, someday, they may help us out.
“We have developed relationships in Florida,” said Gerber.
Gerber said the trip also offered a chance to try out new technology. Not only did they use drones to get a bird’s eye view of the land and assess the damage, but they were also able to test out a semi-trailer they brought with them to serve as a mobile command post.
“This was a piece of repurposed federal property,” said Gerber. “It was like a camper that pops open. … It was the first time our team has deployed this and it was phenomenal.”
Would Gerber volunteer for a sixth deployment? He’s not ruling anything out. “I’m certainly willing,” he said. “But I’d love to leave those opportunities open for others, too.”
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