County commissioners talk of ‘incomprehensible damage’
As of Oct. 6, following the latest inspections by Sarasota County staff in the unincorporated parts of the county, the total damage estimate from Hurricane Ian was $102,407,720.65, The Sarasota News Leader learned from the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, via Public Records Coordinator Cynthia West.
The report said that 98 homes had been destroyed, while 551 had suffered major damage and 1,165 had experienced minor problems. The total number of homes affected by the storm in one way or another was 3,204, the report noted.
Just three days earlier, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis had provided an update to the County Commission on a wide array of Ian-related topics.
At the start of his remarks, Lewis alluded to his predecessor.
In early 2014, then-Sarasota County Administrator Tom Harmer came up with a different way of opening the County Commission’s budget workshops.
Since he and his bosses would be dealing with lots of numbers throughout those sessions, Harmer’s introductory remarks provided what could have been characterized as more of a lighthearted variety of statistics, to set a positive tone for the more serious proceedings to come. He called them “Fast Facts.”
Among them, for examples, were the number of new library cards issued and the number of Sarasota County Fire Department calls in a fiscal year.
Speaking during the commission’s Oct. 3 final hearing on the 2022-23 fiscal year county budget, Lewis mentioned the “Fast Facts.”
While Harmer’s recitations could invoke levity, Lewis’ comments did not prompt any chuckles.
In the early morning hours of Sept. 29, after Hurricane Ian had marched through a swath of Southwest Florida, Lewis noted that the winds finally died down enough — 45 mph or below — to allow the county’s first responders to tackle the backlog of calls placed to 911 dispatchers.
That call center queue had 789 pleas for fire and EMS assistance and 150 requests for law enforcement help.
“We have to hold them back,” Lewis explained of the first responders when a storm is raging.
As Ed McCrane, the county’s emergency management chief, and Rich Collins, McCrane’s boss — who is the director of the Emergency Services Department — have explained, the county cannot risk the lives of its own employees. Only after winds have subsided below tropical storm force level, they have pointed out, can the first responders safely venture out.
Lewis did note on Oct. 3 that those men and women always are frustrated by that directive. “We have to hold them back.”
It was between 2 and 2:30 a.m. on Sept. 29, he said, before they could roll out to help people.
Among other facts, Lewis pointed out that, as of the 5:30 p.m. start of the Oct. 3 budget hearing, the number of medically dependent evacuees in the county center at Tatum Ridge Elementary School was 186. Of the general population evacuation centers that had been opened countywide, he added, only Venice High School remained in use, with slightly fewer than 200 people.
The total estimated storm expense at that point for the cities, the Sheriff’s Office, the Sarasota County School District, the hospitals and the Englewood Fire Department was approximately $14.3 million, Lewis said. For the county alone, he noted, the figure was around $8.5 million.
Additionally, by the time the budget hearing started, he said, power had been restored to 70% of county residents who had lost the service as a result of Ian’s effects.
When The Sarasota News Leader checked Florida Power & Light Co.’s website fplmaps.com for an update about midafternoon on Oct. 6, it found that of the 283,740 customers of the company who lost power during Ian, 262,860 had had it restored. That left 20,880 still waiting.
At 12:01 p.m. on Oct. 5, 43,970 had no electrical service, the map showed then.
FPL has reported that it anticipates having power restored to 95% of its Sarasota County customers by Sunday, Oct. 9.
During his Oct. 3 remarks, Lewis further noted that about one-third of the county’s sewer lift stations remained without normal power. County employees were swapping out generators as needed to keep the lift stations running, he said.
Five “NPODs” — neighborhood points of distribution — were operating in the county to serve residents who had suffered storm damage, Lewis continued. On Oct. 4, he added, the number would drop to three.
“Between yesterday and today,” he said, the NPODs had distributed 23,532 cases of water, 18,970 bags of ice and 21,855 meals ready to eat (MREs).
At the county’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) off Cattlemen Road, Lewis said, “We’re still in 24-hour operations.” Since the start of the Ian incident, he noted, 284 resource requests had been processed by county staff at the EOC.
From Monday, Sept. 26, through Sunday, Oct. 2, Lewis continued, the county’s Contact Center staff had answered 12,800 calls. During that same period, 911 dispatchers had dealt with about 12,600 calls.
Additionally, Lewis told the board members that the Public Utilities Department had provided approximately 1.5 million gallons of water to the Englewood Water District. Englewood, just north of Charlotte County, has been among the most seriously affected communities in Sarasota County, other news media have reported.
Lewis also pointed out that 67% of the traffic signals in the unincorporated areas of the county were functioning, with only 85 still out of service.
County staff had found no problems with county-operated bridges, he said.
Praise for county employees
At the outset of his remarks, Lewis put the spotlight on the approximately 239 county employees who live in Venice and the 192 in North Port, adding that the county has 2,400 workers. He was not certain, he said, his voice quavering, how many of those in South County had lost their homes. Yet, regardless of their personal circumstances, he continued, they were helping the public.
The attitude of even those whose residences had been destroyed has been “Let’s go help the community,” Lewis said.
Karen Rushing, clerk of the Circuit Court and county comptroller, told the commissioners that she, too, has many employees in South County. A number of them, she added were “stranded in their homes …”
Yet, even on Sept. 28, when Ian hit, Rushing said, she and members of her staff were at the EOC, pursuing essential work, including the processing of papers to provide protection for people “who needed those restraining orders.”
Rushing also acknowledged, “We’re tired, really tired, but we’re going to continue our commitment to the community until we’re on the other side of this disaster.”
Commissioners, too, offered plaudits for county staff members. Commissioner Ron Cutsinger pointed to the fact that a number of them have been sleeping at the EOC in between their shifts.
Reading a prepared statement at the start of the hearing, Chair Alan Maio said, “How heartbreaking it is to see our community grapple with the challenges of flooding, lack of power, lack of food and so much more. There are parts of Sarasota County that are difficult to identify following Hurricane Ian.
“Many were fortunate to experience minor damage,” he continued, “while others have a long road to recovery. South County, especially North Port, is facing an uphill battle.”
Commissioner Cutsinger, who lives in Englewood, later noted the “just incomprehensible damage that’s down there.”
Maio added, “Those images of flooded neighborhoods and rescues by our emergency personnel I’ve never seen through my 40 years as a resident of this county. But I’m also seeing neighbors helping neighbors and families working together, and we’ve all felt the spirit of hope.”
“No one’s being overlooked,” Cutsinger stressed. “No one’s being prioritized over another.”
Day by day
The News Leader reviewed a number of the emails that County Administrator Lewis sent the commissioners the day before and in the days immediately after Hurricane Ian’s strike. The following are selections from them:
- 5:38 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 28: “As a county we will still be under significant impact from the storm until early tomorrow morning. The [National Weather Service] in now projecting that we may not be out from under the 45 mph sustained winds until early morning hours. We do not put our teams on the street until it is under the 45mph sustained wind level. … At this moment, the evacuation centers are in good shape but all of them are without power. Our medically dependent centers are operating on generators. … Currently about 75% of the county is without power.”
- 7:59 a.m., Thursday, Sept. 29: “Conditions around the county are still hazardous and we will be continuing to encourage folks to stay off the road. “North Port seems hit hard. [City leaders] did not [place] a team in our EOC as they normally do so we are trying to coordinate as closely as possible. … There are areas of the county and city that are still not accessible. Some of the [South County] shelters are not currently accessible except by high water vehicles. We are still doing windshield assessments of the county. … [Sheriff Kurt Hoffman] has been with us all night and his teams have been working [alongside] our teams the entire time.”
- 7:51 p.m., Friday, Sept. 30 — “North Port is currently dealing with significant flooding, and [the water] has not yet started to recede. There is part of [Interstate 75] in North Port that currently has standing water. … North Port has advised their residents that if they feel unsafe or see rising water they should consider leaving. … The County Landfill will open for normal operations beginning tomorrow. … [Sarasota County Area] Transit [SCAT] will not run tomorrow due to their continued support of evacuation transportation.”
- 8:37 a.m., Sunday, Oct. 2 — FPL: Countywide, 37% without power; 67% of county streets are clear for travel. “We are working with FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] to coordinate 2 DRCs (Disaster Resource Centers). [One would be located in Venice; the other, in North Port].”