Meet The Unsung Heroes Of Wellington’s Emergency Operations Team

Meet The Unsung Heroes Of Wellington’s Emergency Operations Team

When storms like Hurricane Dorian are on the horizon, the community prepares for the worst and hopes for the best. But preparedness is more than having bottles of water and canned food on hand. Wellington’s Emergency Operations Team of Eric Juckett, Bruce Wagner, Shannon LaRocque, Ed De La Vega and Mike O’Dell — led by Director of Emergency Management & Public Safety Nicole Coates — takes the concept of preparation far beyond the expected.

“Emergency Management is made up of all employees who work for the village. All public employees may be called upon to work during an emergency, such as a natural disaster,” Coates said. “The village has implemented the use of FEMA’s Incident Command Structure and applied it to all large-scale events. Employees train year-round on FEMA’s process in the event we needed to respond to an emergency.”

While the entire village is ready to help, there are key personnel who assist in the coordination of resources, response and recovery efforts during a disaster of any kind.

“We all wear multiple hats and are ready to serve when called upon,” Coates said. “My blue-sky role in the Parks & Recreation Department back in 2001 was as the community projects manager, in which I would coordinate and serve as the incident commander for large-scale community events such as the Fall Festival and the Fourth of July.”

As Coates rose over time to become community services director, she continuously found herself working and training in the field of emergency preparedness and response.

“It was during the hurricanes in 2004 that I had my first experience working in the village’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC),” Coates said. “I understood incident command, and it all started to make sense.”

In 2012, when John Bonde retired, Coates was promoted to her current role and is now a part of the Region 7 team consisting of professionals from Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties. The team is deployable to any part of the state when the need arises.

“I was sent to [Hurricane] Michael. Knowing that here we deal with debris and flooding, seeing a Category 5 storm and what it can really do was eye opening,” Coates said. “It really helped me to see the massive coordination it takes to recover from a storm.”

One of the key personnel for the village is Director of Public Works Bruce Wagner. He serves as the Operations Section chief, who is responsible for coordinating a variety of staff during an active incident.

“We work to return the village to normal operations as soon as possible. Public Works is the first to respond and is always the last to leave to ensure the safety and welfare of all residents,” Wagner said. “During Hurricane Irma, Binks Forest Drive became blocked with a great deal of downed trees, vegetation and debris, which posed a potential flooding issue and driving hazard, including obstruction for emergency vehicles. Public Works spotted the situation, responded and addressed it before the public even knew or reported it.”

Coates explained that in addition to fire-rescue and law enforcement, Wellington’s Public Works and Utilities staff also serve as first responders, ensuring roads and critical facilities remain operational. “One of the largest parts of the recovery process is debris management. Removing debris quickly, before it becomes a safety concern, is a top priority,” Coates said. “On average, here in Wellington, we have seen storms generate more than 265,000 cubic yards of debris.”

Utilities Director Shannon LaRocque mirrors Wagner’s role in the Operations Section.

“Bruce handles Public Works, and I handle the Utilities side — water and wastewater,” LaRocque said. “The one thing everyone talks about is water, but even more important is the wastewater plan. Without it, we don’t have sanitary provisions, which is critical to public health. We can always truck in water.”

Because water and sewer service are critical infrastructure, LaRocque’s team plans for more than just natural disasters. They are ready for massive power outages and even to mobilize and assist public utilities elsewhere in Florida.

“We can deal with power loss. We have nearly 60 emergency generators. Emergency power management is huge for us,” LaRocque said. “In [Hurricane] Dorian, I was preparing everybody for the fact that we could have widespread water and sanitary sewer outages.”

With large infrastructure improvements in process, LaRocque’s department has about $50 million in construction projects underway, and all that equipment and unfinished work had to be secured.

“It was a huge coordination effort. Everybody on my team has a specific role, and they know what to do in preparation for a storm. So, I feel very confident that we are in a good position,” LaRocque said.

Assistant Planning & Zoning Director Michael O’Dell is another important piece of the Emergency Management team. His role in the Planning Section is important for the documentation of everything from broad assessments to individual events.

“The Planning Section assists with developing the incident action reports for each operational cycle,” he said. “They are also key to obtaining damage assessment and situational awareness throughout the incident.”

Supporting the staff as they care for village residents is also vital to keeping all responses and recovery efforts moving along smoothly.

“My Emergency Management role is Logistics Section chief. This includes ensuring all the staff in lockdown have the proper supplies, including food, water and safety supplies,” Parks & Recreation Director Eric Juckett said. “It is of the utmost importance that we get back up and running to the public as soon as possible. I can’t begin to explain how many compliments we receive from the residents for our efforts in this.”

Perhaps one of the least visible roles is that of Director of General Services Ed De La Vega, who also serves as the Finance Section chief during and after emergencies.

“The Finance Section is responsible for all financial, administrative and costs associated with the incident,” Coates said. “They play a critical role in the recovery process, from working with our insurance providers to seeking FEMA reimbursement for damage to public property and assets.”