BELLEAIR — The message to have a plan in place and be prepared to use it has been repeated over and over by hurricane and storm safety expert for years.

However, officials agree it’s critical to be prepared now more than ever, coming off a pair of pandemic-plagued years that have significantly impact the world’s economy, causing disruptions in supply chains and leading to a shortage of products as well as inflated prices. 

That’s why the panelists who participated in Belleair’s 2022 Hurricane Symposium repeated the familiar Boy Scouts mantra to “be prepared” during the two-hour event at Town Hall on June 1. According to Belleair’s newly appointed interim town manager, it can’t be emphasized enough.

“It’s so critical to be ready, and this is a great day to start being prepared,” said Gay Lancaster, who was appointed by the Town Commission on May 25 and has extensive county government experience. She noted that June 1 marked the official start of the six-month-long Atlantic hurricane season.

Management Analyst Katherine Bleakly, who organized the event, then introduced the lineup of speakers, including representatives from Duke Energy, Frederick Nessler & Associates law firm, Largo Fire Rescue, Pinellas County Emergency Management, and the town’s police and public works departments.

Damian Sullivent, an experienced insurance attorney with the Nessler firm, started things off by giving the small but rapt audience advice on how to prepare for a hurricane from an insurance perspective.

“The best way to bolster your claim is to be properly prepared before the hurricane occurs,” Sullivent said. He recommends “knowing your property and documenting its condition” as well as taking a video, pre-storm, so afterward the adjustors “will be able to see what the storm did to your house.”

Sullivent also said it’s important to know the details of your policy. “People always say the insurance (industry) is a bad actor, but I think a lot of litigation takes place because of a lack of communication.”

Next Jeff Baker, community relations manager for Duke Energy, spoke about, yes, the importance of being prepared. “Have a plan to stay or go,” Baker said, adding if you decide to evacuate, “turn off your breaker and use all your perishable foods.” He also suggested key items to have during a storm, including enough food, water, pet supplies and medications to last for 7-10 days, and to charge electronic items.

Being a Duke Energy rep, Baker of course spoke about the power company’s app, which he said is an extremely useful tool for residents to use whenever their electricity goes out. He said if the meter box is damaged during a storm, the homeowner “needs to get an electrician to fix it before we turn it back on,” because the homeowners actually own the box, not the company. “Most people don’t know that, but it’s true,” Baker said. He also said people should stay home and off the streets, not touch downed power lines, and report any power outages, even if others in the area have already done so. 

“Please be patient,” Baker said. “It could take days or weeks to get the power back on, but everyone is working as hard as possible to get your power restored.”

Largo Fire Rescue Division Chief Cody Johnson reemphasized some points and added some tips of his own, including making sure “your plan includes you, your family and pets,” noting if someone has special medical needs you must “preregister for a special needs shelter, call us or visit pinellascounty.org.”

Johnson also recommended signing up for Alert Pinellas, a free service that provides users with emergency alerts and other useful information, and he noted they “prepare all year and part of our job is to make sure you are prepared.”

That message that was reiterated by PCEM operations manager, Mary Burrell.

“Like Chief Johnson said, we work year-round to plan, and we hope you do, too, so our main message is to get a plan!” Burrell said. The county recently launched a “new and improved” app called Ready Pinellas that is a “must have” for storm information, including shelter locations, which change depending on the severity of the storm. 

“There are three types of shelter — general, pet-friendly and special needs,” Burrell said. There are three pet-friendly shelters in Pinellas, where the animals stay in a separate room but the owners must take care of them. “It’s okay to go to a shelter, but realize walking in it’s a lifeboat, not a cruise ship. It’s noisy, lights are on all the time, and it’s not going to be pleasant. So, be prepared.”

Afterward, Burrell praised Bleakly and Belleair for hosting a well-organized symposium.

“I thought the panel was a very good way to do it, because you got to hear from different people and talk about specifics to the community. You could really drill down,” she said. “So, I think it was nice.”

For more information on hurricane preparedness, visit pinellascounty.org or pick up a 2022 hurricane guide at Belleair Town Hall.