For Moskowitz, who leads the state’s Division of Emergency Management (DEM), it’s hard to overstate the potential damage of Dorian as it was forecasted to strike the state — until it wasn’t.
“First it was going to come across the peninsula, wind up in the Gulf, and give us a double impact into the Panhandle,” Moskowitz said.
“Then it was just going to hit us in South Florida. Then it was going to come through the middle of the state. Then it was going to just ride up the coast, ride up I-95, and devastate basically the entire coast of Florida.
“I mean, this was an existential threat.”
Until, thank goodness, it wasn’t.
Moskowitz took over the role as DEM head under Gov. Ron DeSantis this year. And in the first hurricane season since taking the position, Moskowitz was tasked with ensuring the state was prepared for a possible direct strike by a Category 5.
“This was a collective, team approach,” Moskowitz said. “And that’s what we’ve been talking about here for the last 7-8 months, which is: while I’m the state coordinating officer, what I am coordinating is all of these different pieces to the puzzle.”
Those pieces were pivotal in ensuring Florida was prepared. Officials were tasked with making decisions on evacuations, road closures and countless other areas that can be life or death choices in a worst-case scenario.
And the changing track of the storm only made that job more difficult.
“Since the models had four or five or six different scenarios, I can tell you we were constantly changing, constantly being malleable because it’s important to do that,” Moskowitz said.
“This was an extremely cohesive, collaborative, communicative effort. And let’s be honest, that’s what it would’ve taken should the strongest hurricane on record ever to threaten this area of the state made any sort of real landfall.”
Those preparation efforts cost money, paid for by state and local governments. That money can be reimbursed by the federal government — specifically the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) — under what’s know as a “Category B reimbursement.”
That money can cover expenses linked to emergency evacuations, provisions of food, water and other life-saving goods, and emergency operations centers, along with several other items.
But an emergency declaration approved Friday by President Donald Trump did not carry with it an authorization for Category B reimbursements.
Should those reimbursements not be approved, that will leave the state and local governments here footing the full bill to prepare for a Category 5 storm.
Moskowitz said that would send a terrible message going forward.
“They want people to do these things in advance so we can get ready to respond as quickly as possible,” Moskowitz said of the federal government.
“If for some reason the message turns out to be to states and to local governments that if you prepare correctly for a Category 5, but by the grace of God, it takes a 90-degree turn and goes north, that you are going to be left with the financial burden of that, then the message to cities and counties and states around the country is going to be: don’t spend any money until you know it’s going to hit you. And by that time, by the way, it’ll be too late to do the necessary preparation.
“I just can’t believe that is going to be FEMA’s message, which is why I believe, ultimately, we are going to get Category B funding from the federal government.”
Moskowitz did concede the unique nature of Dorian’s shifting tracks when it comes to preparation and reimbursement.
“Let’s be honest, this is kind of a case of first impression for everybody, in which you had a storm of this magnitude get this close to that populous of an area — where the devastation would’ve been catastrophic — and the storm not hit and do very minor damage.”
Should the feds not come through with the money, Moskowitz argued the negative effects of that decision could be felt soon, as hurricane season continues through November.
“We could be threatened with another storm, where cities and counties have now spent some money that they’re waiting to get back. And also, again, we don’t want them to not do the necessary preparation because we’ve not gotten an answer from the federal government.”
Near its peak, Dorian was a Category 5 storm carrying winds above 185 mph, with gusts topping 220 mph.
“If anybody wants to know what that looks like,” Moskowitz said, “they only need to look at the pictures all over the news coming out of the Bahamas.”
While Florida and the rest of the U.S. avoided the worst of the impact, the Bahamas endured more than a day of destruction which has killed dozens. Moskowitz echoed DeSantis in saying that goods would be shipped over to help victims on the island.
“We’re trying to get those together and make those donations over to the Bahamas. The pictures coming out of there are absolutely heart-wrenching. I’m not sure I’ve seen anything like it, ever, maybe.”
As for what Florida needs to do going forward, Moskowitz says workers are out doing damage assessments along the east coast. While Dorian didn’t make a direct impact, its outer bands did impact the shoreline and trigger several evacuation orders.
Moskowitz said so far, no structural damage has been reported, though it’s still early. But beaches along the east coast did see some level of damage.
“We have some early estimates that it could be above $50 million in coastal damage,” Moskowitz said. “But those are estimations. They’re not based on actual assessments. Those assessments are going on now and they do take days and weeks to put the documentation together.”
The DEM head also said that while he was happy with the state’s coordination efforts, he’ll put together a review to see what can be improved upon in the future.
“There are always lessons learned in every different storm,” Moskowitz said. “We’ll do an after-action review and apply them to the next one.”