This isn’t Juan Perez’s first rodeo. As the director of the Miami-Dade Police Department and a law enforcement officer in the county for 27 years, he’s experienced his fair share of hurricanes and their aftermath—highway overpasses collapsed, infrastructure ruined, houses blown from their foundations. His own parents were forced to take shelter in a closet in 1992, after Hurricane Andrew ripped the roof of their home.
But when Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm and one of the strongest ever recorded in the Atlantic, makes landfall in South Florida early Sunday morning, it very well may be the most destructive of his long career.
“We’re anxious, just like everyone is,” he said in an interview with TIME at the Miami-Dade County Emergency Operations Center on Friday night. “It’s bigger than Andrew, which was catastrophic for us.”
One saving grace: nearly a week of preparation. Hurricane Irma’s sheer size and force seized meteorologists’ attention on Tuesday, giving Miami-Dade County’s emergency response team longer than usual to assemble a plan.
The nerve center for this effort, Perez explained, is the Miami-Dade County Office of Emergency Management, nestled inside the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue building in Doral, just east of the airport. Outside, the operation looks like a windowless warehouse. Inside, it resembles a NASA command center during a shuttle launch.
The central room, which is about the size of four classrooms, features a wall of 18 televisions and a row of 10 additional jumbo screens, all flickering with satellite images of the hurricane’s trajectory and up-to-the-second information on recent events and road closures.
Below, at 72 numbered work stations, men and women in all manor of uniform (plus some in polo shirts) serve as liaisons to every critical local agency, from the fire department and school board to transit authorities, utilities, and the National Weather Service. It’s a patchwork quilt of public infrastructure.
It’s also the single most important room in all of Miami-Dade for the next three days.
“Everything comes through here,” said Charles Cyrille, deputy director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management. Once the hurricane arrives, this room will serve as the region’s sole dispatch center. The emergency team, which is divided into four branches—public safety, human services, infrastructure and municipal—will meet every four to six hours to share information, assess damage, and triage the…