Officer Marcos Perez was living in Miami when Hurricane Andrew struck in August, 1992. Although not yet a member of the Miami police force, Perez remembers the aftermath of that natural disaster — at the time, the damage caused by Andrew's 150 mph sustained winds made it the costliest hurricane ever to hit the United States. He vowed to educate those who were not living in Miami at the time about preparedness and life-threatening situations.
Today, atop Perez's desk at Miami Police Headquarters, sits a photo of a wide-angle view of the Miami skyline and the caption: "Not in my city, not on my watch."
With visible emotion, Perez recalls what it was like to live through Andrew. "I had just moved here from New York with my wife. We had a new baby and were ready to begin enjoying the Florida lifestyle," he says. "Reports of a monster storm in the Atlantic prompted only curious interest for me, and I didn't prepare myself, my family or my home for what was to come. The roof completely blew off our home and we had to leave to stay with relatives afterward. I felt like I failed my family."Storm warnings
Perez is now an officer with the Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security (OEMHS) for the Miami Police Department. His hope is that he can prepare the people of Miami for whatever disaster might occur, whether natural or man-made. "I am in a race against time," he says. "It could be another hurricane, a tragic accident, or an act of terrorism; it's not if, but when."
Perez adds that neither his department nor the citizens of Miami can depend solely on a federal response. "It was slow to come after Andrew — almost a week," he says. "And we all know what the FEMA response was to Katrina. It's clear we have to educate everyone here to prepare for an extended length of time with no services and no help in sight. It's sad, but it's a fact and realizing that could save your life."
As a result, Miami has developed a systematic approach to disaster preparedness education that is designed to serve the needs of a populace that is both very large and very diverse. Of the 362,470 people living in Miami, approximately 66 percent are Hispanic, 22 percent are African-American, and 12 percent are classified as White/Non-Hispanic. The favorable year-round climate is a draw for elderly citizens and also attracts a sizeable homeless population. The program that Miami's OEMHS has created for the city's older citizens illustrates the step-by-step intensity of the department's commitment to public safety in times of emergency.
"We have developed a comprehensive preparation education plan which addresses [our] elderly population on a fixed income," Perez explains. "We distribute preparation kits including things like an ice pack, batteries, shelter-in-place instructions, and evacuation procedures. It gives us a chance to interact with the different communities at a time when there is peace and quiet and help them develop their own survival kits. I encourage them to buy a couple bottles of water one week, a few cans of food the next, keep extra medication on hand during hurricane season, and to keep numbers of friends and family handy and develop a plan to reunite with loved ones if they're separated by an event. We teach them to evaluate their location during a storm, and how to make a decision to shelter in place or evacuate to a safer place."
In Miami, the area east of Biscayne Boulevard is often evacuated when an advancing hurricane reaches Category 3 strength. Other regions of the city are evaluated based on the storm's intensity and direction and the times of high tides. People in mobile homes are encouraged to move to a shelter until the storm passes.
"I tell them to evaluate their own situation, plan to protect their own immediate and extended families, be ready to move if the situation changes, and [plan to] be responsible for themselves for at least 72 hours, preferably a week," Perez says. "It really doesn't take much if you do all the planning and preparation ahead of time, and it could be the difference between life and death."