In an effort to inform the community of the exceptional efforts made by local organizations in the Hurricane Ian response and recovery process, the Long-Term Recovery Group has been meeting with organization leaders to listen to their stories. To gain a deeper understanding of everything the Health Department did to help our community recover after Hurricane Ian, we reached out to the Director of the Charlotte County Health Department Dr. Joseph Pepe to hear his story.
The Charlotte County Health Department is a state agency that is part of the Florida Department of Health. Every county Health Department is tasked with providing three main levels of service to their respective communities: environmental health services, communicable disease control services, and primary care services. From keeping our food and water clean to ensuring that our most vulnerable residents receive healthcare, the Health Department is one of the busiest agencies in any county. Considering how crucial the Health Department is to the health and safety of our community, their operations are kicked into high gear before, during, and after any major hurricane.
Before Hurricane Ian was even a tropical storm off the west coast of Africa, Dr. Pepe and his team were vigilantly tracking its development. Working closely with the local public safety and emergency management departments, Dr. Pepe told us, “By the time Ian made its way to our area, we were warmed up and knew what we were going to do, when, and how.” Because there are so many unknowns when tracking a storm weeks before it makes landfall, his main priority was making sure that everything was in place when Hurricane Ian would impact our County.
Possibly the most significant operation of the Health Department during the hurricane was running the special needs shelter. Throughout the year, they work with the County’s most vulnerable residents to formulate a plan for them to evacuate the county before a major hurricane. Unfortunately, many individuals lack the means or resources to evacuate and have no choice but to stay and weather the hurricane. Though Dr. Pepe was, and still is, adamant that the special needs shelter should not be anybody’s plan-A, the shelter held about 200 high-risk citizens and staff.
During, and for about two weeks after Hurricane Ian, you could have found Dr. Pepe working and sleeping at the Charlotte County Emergency Operations Center (EOC). At the EOC, Dr. Pepe worked with an array of county and non-profit agency leaders to ensure the response and eventual recovery process was running as efficiently as possible. Knowing that the sleeping accommodations are less-than luxurious at the EOC, we asked Dr. Pepe about his experience, “I’ve slept under desks for three days, so to have cots was a blessing.” Having worked at several EOCs in the past, Dr. Pepe praised the Charlotte County EOC for having such a strong network of trust and cooperation between agencies, “Everybody was at the same table. So, when someone asks me for something, we can solve that issue in a matter of seconds rather than delaying that process.
Due to his responsibilities as Health Department Director, Dr. Pepe was not allowed to leave the EOC for some time after the storm. Without a cell signal, his contact with family was limited and he was unable to see the extent of damage to his home. While he told us that he was “impacted like everyone else”, some people on his team were not so lucky. In the middle of coordinating resources and getting the Health Department back to normal operations, a few of Dr. Pepe’s team members did not have a home to go back to. Even though they were functionally homeless, they still came in and worked around the clock to ensure that the community was safe and healthy, “It was inspiring. They were truly amazing.” Though it was far from perfect, the Health Department assumed normal operations only a week after Ian had passed.
While the immediate chaos of Hurricane Ian has begun to calm down, there are still challenges that the Health Department is facing. The most notable of these challenges are efficiently managing their limited resources and helping their staff get back on their feet. But as our community enters the anxious months of Hurricane Season, Dr. Pepe assures us that the Health Department is doing everything it can to reach out to high-risk residents of Charlotte County to be better prepared and resilient for future hurricanes. In light of the undeniable devastation caused by Ian, our community is more prepared for future disasters than we have been for nearly two decades.
Looking to the future, Dr. Pepe sees ample opportunity for improving our community’s infrastructure and subsequently our capacity for resilience. Dr. Pepe hopes to see an expansion of the EOC and Health Department facilities to accommodate the growing size of our county’s population and local agencies. When a community experiences an exceptional disaster like Hurricane Ian, it requires an exceptional response and recovery. The incredible work put in by Dr. Pepe and everyone at the Health Department serves as a testament to this truth. In the future, when our community reflects on the people responsible for helping make a more prosperous Charlotte County, we will be able to look at the work put in by Dr. Pepe and his team.
Dr. Joseph Pepe
About the LTRG
The Charlotte County Long-Term Recovery Group works to coordinate recovery services and build resiliency for individuals, families, and entities adversely impacted by Hurricane Ian in Charlotte County. Its purpose is to engage the community and create a vision while re-imagining the systems and landscape of our community. A plan will be created and published in the Fall of 2023. For more information, please contact us at LTRteam@gulfcoastpartnership.org.
About the Florida Department of Health
The department works to protect, promote and improve the health of all people in Florida through integrated state, county and community efforts. Follow us on Twitter at @HealthyFla and on Facebook. For more information about the Florida Department of Health please visit www.FloridaHealth.gov.