ORLANDO, Fla. - Greg Firth knows a few things about hurricane cleanups. The owner of Fireservices Disaster Kleenup, Ft. Myers, Fla., has been involved with many cleanups in his business career. "Hurricane cleanup is like a rock concert tour that never ends - it just goes from stop to stop," he joked.

But hurricane cleanup is certainly no joking matter. The real tragedy, besides the toll in human lives/injuries and property damage, is that so much of the devastation can be avoided if people and business owners only knew how to prepare themselves and their properties for disasters ahead of time.

The problems aren't restricted to Florida either –– or to retail businesses, restaurants, or hotels. All businesses, including HVAC contractors, should have a preparedness plan.

Firth, who was speaking to attendees of his seminar at the recent IAQA-AmIAQ-IESO 2005 Unification Conference in Orlando, gave the golden rule of preparing for disasters. "You run from water; you hide from wind," he said. Most of the deaths attributed to natural disasters like the recent Hurricane Katrina have been caused by flooding, which supports Firth's statement.

Firth's presentation was centered on the four major hurricanes that hit the Florida region in 2004: Charley and Frances (both Category 4), and Ivan and Jeanne (both Category 3). He said that all hurricanes are unpredictable and should not be compared to any others. Hurricane Charley appeared to be headed toward Tampa in 2004 and area residents fled south to the Port Charles region. But Charley took a sudden right turn and hit Florida around Port Charles, right where the Tampa residents had fled to.

Fortunately, Charley was a fast-moving hurricane with a small eye, which Firth said was a mixed blessing. "There wasn't a big storm surge created by Charley because of how quickly it moved," he added. Storm surges are attributed to high waves and spawn a flurry of tornadoes. The four major 2004 hurricanes spawned 321 tornadoes.

Will the hurricane activity, which has been increasing in the past few years, continue to wreak havoc in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico regions? It will if you believe national hurricane expert Max Mayfield. Firth said that Mayfield predicts 10 to 20 more years of stepped-up hurricane activity, and he bases his theory on one factor: the water around Africa is 1-1⁄2 degrees above normal.

Greg Firth (right) explains ways to prepare for natural disasters like the hurricanes that hit Florida in 2004.

Preparing For The Worst

Firth suggested several ways to prepare for a hurricane and its aftermath. The first thing to do is sort out staff responsibilities.

  • Managers need authorization to start the cleanup process.

  • There must be a reporting process established.

  • Outline quick-response protocol.

    "Have someone with a telephone set up outside of the disaster area where people can call for messages," he suggested.

    Firth recommended things that any business or homeowner needs.

  • A 72-hour supply kit including water, food, and medicine

  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather radio (battery operated with plenty of extra batteries)

  • Corded/analog telephone (many phone lines are buried underground and corded landline phones may still operate)

  • Battery-powered television.

    It is important to create a list of everything in a home or business, for insurance purposes. Firth suggested using a video camera to record all of the property, especially since most people don't know everything they have. "Insurance statistics show that the average person forgets 20 percent of what he or she owns," he added.

    If you take pictures of your possessions using a digital camera, ensure that the date stamp is on the picture. Insurance companies won't accept what they believe to be doctored or altered photographs. And if you back up your pictures or movies on a computer, ensure that the hard drive is off the floor.

    A good source for more information on protecting a building and its contents is available from the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (www.flash.org).

    The best plans are only as good as the execution of the plan, which means that everyone should know what to do. "If you have a plan, let everyone in on it," Firth noted.

    He joked that there are a lot of things that people should "treat right" before and after a disaster. One is a gas generator. "If you have a big generator, treat it nice," he said. "It is like gold. After Katrina there are probably not enough generators in the country to send to the Gulf region."

    He also suggested treating roofing contractors and restoration companies right too. After a disaster, they are in demand and not likely to take on any new customers until they take care of their existing customers or people they have a good relationship with.

    Finally, Firth recommends that people enroll in a training program called Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT), an eight-week course sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Authority and Homeland Security. For more information visit http://training.fema.gov/emiweb/CERT/.

    Two other Web sites recommended by Firth are www.fldisasterkit.com and www.floridadisaster.org.

    Publication date: 10/31/2005