Emergency management works to fight complacency during storm season.

The Lake Eva Banquet Hall will be the host site for a Polk County Hurricane Expo on Saturday. (Photo by Steve Schwartz).

HAINES CITY – It could be a coincidence that just one weekend before Polk County Emergency Management hosts a Hurricane Expo, Central Florida got its first storm warning of the season, with a tropical storm, Beryl, that delivered soaking rains from the coast to well inland.
Brad Ruhmann thinks that storm, which was downgraded to a tropical depression, could actually serve a useful purpose. Coming so early in the season – before the official start of hurricane season on Friday – it may be a helpful reminder to area residents that storms are unpredictable, often deadly, and that the only way to protect yourself is to be prepared, he said.
“It is very early in the season,’’ said Ruhmann, the public information officer for Polk County Emergency Management. “Hurricane season doesn’t typically start until June 1, but we’ve already seen a tropical storm come through, and now there’s a hurricane in the Atlantic. That’s unusual to see before the hurricane season even starts.’’
Polk County hasn’t experienced a hurricane since 2004, when no fewer than three of them – Charley, Frances and Jeanne – barreled across the state, causing widespread damage to homes, businesses and public property. Since then, however, the region has been quiet and storm free, and that has agencies like Polk County Emergency Management concerned.
After the terrible 2004 storm season, the agency started an annual Polk County Hurricane Expo, held in the past few years at the Orange Dome in downtown Winter Haven. With that building now shut down and being demolished, the expo has been shifted to the Lake Eva Banquet Hall and will be held on Saturday, June 2 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The hall is at 799 Johns Ave. in downtown Haines City.
Ruhmann said attendance to the expo has dropped a bit in the past few years, which has Polk County Emergency Management nervous about people letting their guard down.
‘’That’s definitely the case,’’ Ruhmann said. ‘’That’s the purpose of this event, to keep our residents from becoming complacent and saying it’s not going to happen to me.’’
For one thing, he added, memories of 2004 can fade over eight years – and for newcomers to the region who were not around in that year, they have no clue how terrifying a Category 2 or 4 storm can be.
‘’It’s always devastating when a hurricane comes through,’’ he said. ‘’It’s even more devastating when three hurricanes come through.’’
The expo will help residents plan for a storm, and have the opportunity to be fully prepared for a natural emergency.
‘’This summer will be the 20th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew,’’ Ruhmann said of the highly destructive storm and third Category 5 hurricane to make landfall in the United States. It hit south Florida in August 1992, causing more than $26 billion in damage.
‘’Being an A storm means it was the first named storm of the season, and it devastated south Florida,’’ Ruhmann said.
Although some people think hurricanes mainly hit the coast, the 2004 season demonstrated that an interior county like Polk can be highly vulnerable as well, Ruhmann said.
‘’Being an inland county, Polk County is still susceptible to hurricanes,’’ he said. ‘’We typically get lower winds than the coast, but our damage comes from flash floods and lower winds. We still could have very widespread damage.’’
The message that Polk County Emergency Management hopes to get out, he said, is that a few simple steps can help homeowners be better prepared in case a storm unexpectedly turns deadly.
‘’We’re hoping for the people who do show up, we have a list of the materials they need before a storm hits,’’ he said. ‘’We want to make sure they are taking the steps now, before the storm season starts. This is our annual Hurricane Expo, and we’ve been doing it since 2004, and for the past several years, we’ve been building on it. It’s mainly for hurricane preparedness, and how to prepare your family, how to prepare yourself in the event of an emergency. We’ll have several different speakers, including meteorologists out of Tampa, and the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) will be there to tell you how to prepare your pet for a hurricane. We’ll have our new shelter maps out as well.”

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