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New emergency director speaks at Friday Forum

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Upcoming storm season discussed

Preston Bowlin, newly appointed Marion County Emergency Management Director in the Sheriff’s Bureau of Support Services, appeared at the May 12 Friday Forum on his first day in that position to discuss hurricane and other disaster preparedness with three representatives of Marion County Public Schools. They were Dr. Craig Ham, Deputy Superintendent of Operations; Charles “Steve”Huffstutler, Emergency Coordinator and Risk Inspector; and Dennis McFatten, Safe Schools Coordinator.

A veteran of 32 years with the fire service and 11 with law enforcement, Bowlin replaces Major Chip Wildy who retired the previous day. He said he inherits a fantastic staff and an office which has been widely heralded throughout the state thanks to new technologies including camera systems monitoring traffic flow, community partnerships within and outside the county, mobile dispatch units, helicopter access and a headquarters built to sustain winds up to 165 miles per hour.

The Hurricane Andrew survivor strongly recommends that people monitor events by visiting weatherstem.com, a 24-hour service operating out of Dr. N.H. Jones Elementary School. WeatherSTEM promotes both data and environmental literacy and a location page which provides a view of current and forecasted conditions. Bowlin feels its live feeds are more up to date than google maps and the site is a wonderful teaching tool. He also recommends that you sign up with AlertMarion.com for emergency notifications.

Dr. Ham, who has a doctorate in forensic geology, once taught at Forest High. After surviving a tornado in Indiana, a typhoon in Korea and another tornado 200 yards from his home in Lexington Kentucky, Ham came to Ocala in 1994 to be safe from disaster only to learn how to keep reinstalling plywood covers in the intervening years. While the former Marine takes a hands on approach to all projects, the deputy superintendent for all Marion County public school operations is happy to be able to delegate to an excellent staff.

This includes Emergency Coordinator Charles Huffstutler who noted that Marion County has not experienced hurricane force winds just the effects of weather bands circulating outward from the eye of any hurricane. He pointed out that while the Marion County school system has 52 campuses only 14 are designated shelters according to Florida Statute 252 enacted after Hurricane Andrew which requires that one half of any new school be hurricane resistant. He also cautioned that we listen to the media because not all 14 might be open at any one time and only Vanguard is available for a few hundred pets. Owners must provide all supplies and stay with their pets.

Dennis McFatten, who came on board Feb. 24, after 21 years with the Sheriff’s Office, functions as the liaison between the Sheriff and the schools. His chief duty is to ensure a safe environment for the kids to learn on a daily basis.

Responding to a question from the audience, Bowlin assured them that anti-terrorism precautions are fully in place in coordination with the FBI, ATF, DEA and all other agencies. He concluded by asking residents to be careful of rumors. He said shelter signs will be activated throughout the county on a timely basis and he recommended a visit to the Sheriff’s facebook site as well as to AlertMarion and weatherstem.com cited above.

Most importantly he and all other panelists cautioned residents not to wait until the last minute to prepare. If you’re leaving town, go early. Ditto to the shelters. For a list of recommended disaster supplies, visit www.nhc.noaa.gov/HAW2/english/prepare/supply.

Remember that the Sheriff takes over shelter schools in any emergency but a large part of effective responses to fires, floods, tornadoes and sinkholes as well as hurricanes is due to the 250 CERT (Citizens Emergency Response Team) volunteers scattered throughout the county. New candidates are always welcome. Please call Beverly Case, coordinator of the emergency management staff at 352/369-8103 to enroll in a new training class scheduled to begin in about two weeks.