On Labor Day weekend in 1985, Hurricane Elena threatened the west coast of Florida causing massive evacuations in the Tampa Bay area, before eventually turning and making landfall as a category 3 hurricane along the Mississippi coast.
In some cases, these evacuations were historic in nature and omens of things to come. In Pinellas County, 300,000 people were evacuated and over 113,000 registered in 70 shelters, the largest single county sheltering operation in the history of the American Red Cross. The large number of elderly caused medical and other special needs-related problems in every shelter.
The largest medical evacuation in the history of the United States also took place at the same time when 3 hospitals and 19 nursing homes were evacuated from threatened areas to sheltering facilities on high ground.
There were many lessons to be learned by emergency managers throughout Florida concerning this massive evacuation, however, there was a problem. The lessons learned from Hurricane Elena were presented at the National Hurricane Conference in Houston, Texas in the spring of 1986, but nowhere in the State of Florida.
On July 17, 1986, at the FEPA Summer Conference in Kissimmee, Richard Smith appointed Guy Daines, FEPA Vice President, to meet with the Director of FDEM to discuss holding a FDEM/FEPA sponsored Florida State Hurricane Conference. As a result of that meeting, on September 12, 1986, at a FEPA/FDEM Task Force meeting and FEPA Executive Committee meeting held in Tallahassee, a joint FEPA/FDEM Planning Committee was established to determine sponsorship and development of a conference program. At the FEPA Executive Committee meeting, Richard Smith appointed Guy Daines to act as FEPA Conference Coordinator until becoming President in November 1986. Also in late September, Jim York, Manager of the Upper Pinellas Chapter of the American Red Cross was contacted to determine if the American Red Cross (ARC) was interested in acting as a sponsoring agency.
November 14, 1986, at the Fall Conference in Homosassa Springs, the FEPA membership voted approval to co-sponsor the State Hurricane Conference. Eastern Operations Headquarters of the ARC and Governor Bob Graham also approved sponsorship of the Florida State Hurricane Conference in November 1986.
Based upon the approval of the three sponsoring agencies, a Site Selection Committee was established and was directed to look at the Howey-in-the-Hills area of Lake County in Central Florida as the location of the first Florida Hurricane Conference. The Site Selection Committee was chaired by Joe Stephany, the Lake County Emergency Management Director, representing FEPA. The first organizational meeting for the conference was held in Clearwater on December 17, 1986.
In January 1987 Governor Bob Martinez was inaugurated and enthusiastically endorsed the State’s sponsorship of the conference. In February, at the suggestion of Gordon Guthrie, the Coordinating Committee changed the name to the Governor’s Hurricane Conference (GHC).
THE FIRST CONFERENCE
The first conference was held at Mission Inn in Howey-in-the-Hills May 26-28, 1987. The site was selected by the Coordinating Committee because of its central location and reasonable room rates. FDEM paid for one representative from each county to attend the conference. The Coordinating Committee projected 200 attendees and the actual attendance was 383, which completely overwhelmed the facilities at Mission Inn. The program consisted of Governor Martinez as the keynote speaker at the opening general session followed by 19 scheduled workshops. As the success of the first conference spread, hotels and resorts across Florida wrote letters to the Governor expressing an interest in being the host facility in 1988.
MOVE TO TAMPA
The conference moved to the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Tampa in 1988. The first year in Tampa the Coordinating Committee planned for 500 attendees and the actual attendance was 620. The decision was also made to include exhibitors as part of the 1988 conference. FDEM handled all mailings, FEPA coordinated exhibits and audio visual equipment and ARC was in charge of registration.
Between 1988 and 1990 the GHC’s structure was changed and formalized to meet the needs of the conference. While there was still a Coordinating Committee composed of a representative of each sponsoring agency, it was determined that several additional committees be permanently established to include a Program Committee, a Site Selection Committee and an Awards Committee. The Program Committee was assigned the responsibility of developing the program for the annual conference. The Site Selection Committee had the responsibility of where the conference would be held year-to-year based upon an approved bid process. The Awards Committee was responsible for reviewing and considering submitted nominations annually to determine qualification for any of the established GHC awards. The structure and responsibilities were outlined in the newly written and approved Administrative Policies and Procedures.
Another major event affecting conference’s growth was Hurricane Andrew, which devastated south Florida in 1992. In 1993, attendance increased to over 1,400 and resulted in the conference taxing the facilities at the Hyatt Regency Hotel.
Also, in 1993, at the request of the attendees for training, the conference was extended from three days to four days. The first day of the conference was devoted to training with the next three days for the general sessions and workshops. This was the beginning of an aggressive training component that with the assistance and support of the State training staff, was designed to enhance and improve the overall training program within the State of Florida.
The next year, 1994, the Governor’s Hurricane Conference changed its structure and became a Florida not-for-profit corporation. The new organizational structure included a Board of Directors consisting of a representative of each of the three sponsoring agencies and elected/appointed Officers representing the same three sponsoring agencies. The Program Committee, Site Selection Committee and Awards Committee were retained within the corporate structure. For the first time the conference hired a part-time employee to handle day-to-day activities and coordination of the conference.
FORMAT CHANGE/MORE TRAINING/TAX EXEMPT
Because of the increasing need for training throughout the State of Florida, in 1996 the conference expanded to five days with the first two days dedicated to training and three days for the general sessions and workshops. Attendees were given the option of registering, at a reduced fee, for the training sessions only, registering for the conference only or registering for both. The entire conference was held at the Tampa Convention Center. Also that year the conference obtained a 501c(3) tax exempt status.
The conference continued to grow and by 1999 had its largest attendance ever with 1,700 professionals meeting at the Tampa Convention Center. Due to the continued growth a second part-time employee was hired. In the year 2000, the success of the conference continued with 2000 attendees, surpassing the 1,700 in attendance the prior year. It is a tribute to the overall success of the conference that attendance increased each year during the 1990s. As Florida moved to the forefront of emergency management programs in the United States during the 1990’s, there was also a direct affect on conference attendance. The conference, because of its reasonable costs, excellent training and reputation, became much more than a ‘State Conference”. Attendees representing States from throughout the hurricane vulnerable areas of the country, to include U.S. territories and foreign countries, began attending the conference to learn from what was considered the premier emergency management system in the United States.
FORMAT CHANGE/MORE TRAINING
In 2003, the format was once again changed based upon the request of the attendees. An additional half day of training was added, making training sessions 2 ½ days and the conference 2½ days in length. The partnership with FDEM as a sponsoring agency resulted in the availability of instructors and training support that allowed the conference, for the first time, to offer the G-Series courses to attendees.
HURRICANES AND MORE HURRICANES
The 2004 & 2005 hurricanes not only affected the citizens, disaster organizations and emergency management agencies in Florida, but also had a significant impact on attendance at the Governor’s Hurricane Conference. In 2005 over 3,000 attendees participated in the conference, which required the use of all available space at the Tampa Convention Center and the use of two hotels for training sessions. The conference, for the third time, had outgrown its facility. The Board of Directors tasked the Site Selection Committee to recommend a new site for the 2006 conference utilizing the approved bid process. Based upon their review, the Site Selection Committee recommended that the Board of Directors approve the 3 year bid from the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau for the 2006, 2007 and 2008 GHC.
MOVE TO FORT LAUDERDALE/NEW SPONSORING AGENCY
After being in Tampa for 18 years, the Directors and Officers were apprehensive about moving to a new site. However, the apprehension quickly disappeared with the outstanding reception and support of everyone in the Fort Lauderdale area. The conference was a huge success in its new venue at the Greater Ft. Lauderdale Broward County Convention Center with over 4,000 attendees and excellent evaluations. The conference was also attended by representatives of 38 states and U.S. territories and 5 foreign countries. With a large exhibit hall, the conference also had its best participation by exhibitors ever. After the 2006 conference, the Board of Directors approved the addition of the Southern Region of the National Weather Service as the fourth sponsoring agency. The Directors also approved hiring a third part-time employee to help with the increased workload. The year 2006 had an inactive hurricane season and projections indicated the 2007 conference would probably be significantly less well attended as the prior year.
INACTIVE HURRICANE SEASONS & BUDGET CUTS
The series of inactive hurricane seasons coupled with budget cuts in state and local governments caused a downturn in attendance beginning in 2007. Apathy was not a problem in 2007 as evidenced by over 3,300 attendees taking advantage of the education and training opportunities provided by the conference. Based upon the outstanding support in the Ft. Lauderdale area and the excellent facilities at the Greater Ft. Lauderdale Broward County Convention Center, after the 2007 conference, the Directors approved a contract for 2009, 2010 and 2011. The 2008 attendance was still over 3,000, however, the financial problems that had primarily affected government, spread throughout the economy of the United States and world. Travel budgets in both government agencies and business were cut and in many cases, only minimum essential travel was allowed. This resulted in the 2009 attendance dropping to 2,700.
To assist attendees during this vital period, the conference convinced hotels to lower contracted rates for rooms in 2010. An additional, half day of training was added allowing three full training days for selected critical courses with training beginning on Sunday. Importantly, all of this was done for the benefit of the attendees, without raising registration fees. Since the training component of the conference began in 1993 an estimated 15,000 students have been trained at the annual conference. The efforts to assist attendees through their budget problems appeared to help as the 2010 attendance only dropped by 300 to 2,400 attendees. With attendance declining, the conference leadership still looked for other programs, both inside and outside the conference venue that would enhance one of its primary goals of improving hurricane preparedness and response in Florida.
First, in 2010 the conference approved the funding of a pilot Small Community Integrated Emergency Management Course (IEMC), which was held in April 2010 at the City of Tarpon Springs. The IEMC is one of the FEMA Emergency Management Institute’s premier courses normally conducted on site in Emmittsburg, Maryland. The pilot course conducted in Tarpon Springs was very successful and beneficial to the city. A second pilot Small Community IEMC oriented to a small County was held in Dixie County in April 2011. This external program has the potential of greatly improving the response capability in Florida’s small cities and counties. Unfortunately, due to budget constraints, the program was suspended in 2013, but will be considered for implementation again in the future.
Second, in looking to maintain an influx of high quality college graduates with degrees in Emergency Management related subjects into the emergency management community in Florida, the conference began a Student Scholarship Program in 2010. This program funded the registration fee and hotel room for the 23 students selected by the Educational Outreach Committee to attend the conference in 2010. This highly successful program has continued since.
In early 2010, the Directors began the bid process for the 2012 conference. After site visits in Daytona and Orlando by GHC staff, the Directors approved the recommendation of accepting a bid to remain in Ft. Lauderdale for 2012 and 2013.
MOVE TO ORLANDO
2014 – 2016
After a site selection bid process in 2012, the Board of Directors selected Orlando as the site for the 2014 – 2016 conferences. For 2014, the location was the Rosen Centre Hotel and the Orange County Convention Center. For 2015 and 2016, the GHC was under one roof at the Rosen Shingle Creek. It was hoped that the move would enable more attendees to participate due to a more central location.
PALM BEACH COUNTY CONVENTION CENTER & HILTON WEST PALM BEACH
2017 – 2026
In 2015, the site selection process began for locations for the three years after our contract with Rosen Hotels and Resorts expired in 2016. Several bids were submitted and one was selected as the most beneficial to our attendees and the future of the GHC, The Palm Beach County Convention Center and Hilton West Palm Beach.
The Governor’s Hurricane Conference is now celebrating over 30 years of serving the emergency management community in Florida and beyond. Since its beginning in 1987, it has grown to be the largest and best hurricane conference in the United States. It takes many dedicated individuals to plan, prepare and conduct the conference each year, but its real success lies with our attendees from all over the State of Florida and beyond who continue to support and depend on the conference for needed training each year. Remember, the conference was started to meet your needs and as you can see from its history, changes are made based on the input of attendees.
As the conference moves forward, the Directors and Officers pledge their commitment to maintain the established goal of improving hurricane preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation in the State of Florida, in order to save lives and reduce property damage and providing the attendees the highest quality training at the lowest possible cost.