When it comes to handling emergencies such as accidents, natural disasters and terrorist attacks, the Palm Beach Police Department, a full-service law enforcement agency with the highest levels of service and excellence, remains ever prepared. Preparedness and professionalism were well in evidence and action before, during and after Hurricane Irma, a potentially deadly storm that hit Palm Beach on September 10th, for which a mandatory evacuation was ordered.
The Department’s dedicated and highly-trained first responders, led by Public Safety Director Kirk Blouin, saw to the safety of the town while Irma pummeled Palm Beach, downed trees and powerlines, jettisoned debris, and displaced substantial amounts of sand blown ashore from the oceanfront.
After the storm, while nearly the entire town was without power, the police officers -- many that worked double shifts and longer – persevered. They combed the island for trouble spots, did welfare checks, facilitated expeditious power restorations and reentry efforts into the Town.
The Palm Beach Police Foundation spoke with several officers about what it was like to work during the hurricane, and observed operations with public safety personnel members at a security checkpoint, where every vehicle was checked to verify residency or reason for entry.
Social Security Palm Beach-style
A Department veteran of 23 years, Sgt Scott Duquette, its Range Master and Swat Team leader, was on duty each day with officers, stationed near a shading tent equipped with folding chairs, an oscillating mister and “an almost embarrassing amount of food generously provided by residents and local businesses. People have been so nice,” he said
The officers, who worked 12-hour shifts, know many of the Town residents and workers. As power was increasingly restored and curfews and anxiety eased, the mood lifted. Lots of warm hellos were exchanged, and the police seemed as much a welcoming committee as a security detail.
To Catch a (Would-be) Thief
After the storm while working at security checkpoint, Officer Steven O’Leary encountered a man attempting to gain entry to the island. He said he was on assignment working security, but could not provide any appropriate identification, and was asked to make a U-turn and go back to West Palm Beach. About 30 minutes later, O’Leary, who had relocated to another checkpoint to relieve an officer, noticed a colleague questioning the same man and went over to assist. The man told the officer he was working undercover for the Secret Service and going to protect a diplomat on the North End. The West Palm Beach Division of the Secret Service was contacted, and it was determined the suspect planned to enter the island with criminal intent. He was arrested by West Palm Beach-based federal officers with assistance from Town police on a federal charge of impersonating a Secret Service officer. “I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time with the right training and experience to make a difference,” O’Leary said.
Braving the Storm
There was no hunkering down for Duquette, who worked 11 days straight. “One of the biggest challenges is not knowing the severity of a storm until it hits. We always have to prepare for the worst. I’m a doer and like to over-prep. Some call it paranoid, I call it prepared. We got very lucky this time,” he said.
While patrolling solo at an oceanfront intersection as the storm made landfall, Duquette shot video with his cell phone, then later pulled into a covered garage for a reprieve and shelter. “It can be very dangerous when riding around, you don’t know what’s coming down in front of you.”
Sgt. Mike Bates, who worked the storm with the Organized Crime, Vice and Narcotics Units and Detectives, said “initially we were all apprehensive about the storm. Everyone was unusually quiet and not in their normal high spirits as the changing forecast created uncertainty and anxiety. Many of us have worked during hurricanes before, so we were very prepared and able to explain to the newer officers what to expect and how to handle some of the concerns and dangers they might face.
“Afterwards, we made notifications about downed power line locations, and then dispatched cleanup crews to remove the sand from the roads to clear the way for police cars, fire engines and power companies so they could navigate as needed. This time, there were no especially big challenges. The operation plan was followed, and recovery was successful. It seemed that power was restored faster to some areas than after previous storms. There was no significant flooding, though we did see some damage to homes and landscaping.”
Mandatory Evacuations – Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Sgt. Dan Wilkinson, the 2016 Officer of the Year Award recipient, works with the Detectives in Criminal Investigations Unit, said, “once an evacuation order is issued, we need to know exactly who is still on the island and where they are, especially the elderly. The severity of a storm can vary from hour to hour, and we want to be pro-active as possible, he said. Prior to the storm, Wilkinson drove his family to Virginia for an evacuation vacation, then flew back home so he could totally focus on work, he said.
Better Safe than Sorry
After the storm Wilkinson did a welfare check on an elderly woman, a resident since 1947. “Her home was very hot and she looked like she was beginning to get dehydrated. She said all she had for breakfast was melted ice cream. She planned to weather the storm in a hotel in West Palm Beach, but her reservation was not honored. I called the hotels in Town, but none were open for business. She said there was no one she could call for help because her landline wasn’t working. I decided to take her to the Palm Beach Police Department where she could enjoy air conditioning, get something to eat, and I contacted her family hoping they could provide assistance.
“I reached the woman's daughter in New York, who said she would be in Palm Beach the following day. The woman refused to find shelter outside of the Town, and reluctantly, I brought her back to her house as she requested. When we arrived, she didn’t have the right key to get back in, but I was able to gain access. I checked on the woman again before my shift ended, and initiated a special watch with the night shift to check on her periodically. The following day, I did another check and met the woman's daughter, and concluded they were both safe,” Wilkinson said.
Strengthening Safety with Planning and Team Work
“Too often elderly residents, who are the most vulnerable, are left to endure alone. One of our biggest challenges is not knowing exactly who stays behind, opting to ride out a storm despite an evacuation order, but we always try to convince them to leave. We cannot be fully effective if we do not know where people are,” Wilkinson said.
“For that reason, I would like to see a preparedness program created with a database so we know exactly how to reach residents that choose to stay and their next of kin, so we know exactly how to channel our resources. Such a program could engage the Fire Dept. to assist with welfare checks as these types of crisis situations often come with a higher likelihood of a need for immediate medical assistance. In essence, we already do this, but after the fact. Our services are implemented only when family members or friends contact the Department requesting welfare checks. The problem is timing, and without a pro-active plan, the results can be disastrous and even fatal.
‘I believe the local community would benefit from a preparedness program so that the Department could target and utilize its resources more efficiently -- a program that would be marshaled when Town Hall is closed and inoperable during hazardous conditions.”
The Palm Beach Police Department expressed gratitude for the generosity and kindness of business owners, residents and their employees. “It was overwhelming – the amount of food and water dropped off at checkpoints, as well as all the food provided by the Palm Beach Police Foundation. It all helped keep morale high while we dealt with extreme conditions.”