Almost 19,000 people sheltered in Sarasota County during Irma, county administrator reports

Commissioners’ primary criticism about emergency operations focuses on need for shelters in Venice and Englewood

Palm trees bend in Irma’s winds on Sept. 10 in a Sarasota County neighborhood. Rachel Hackney photo

Almost 19,000 individuals occupied the 14 Sarasota County shelters that were opened in advance of Hurricane Irma’s strike over the night of Sept. 10, County Administrator Tom Harmer reported to the County Commission this week.

Although all the general population shelters had closed prior to the board’s regular meeting on Sept. 13, he said, one special needs facility remained open. County staff also was working with the City of North Port about the potential for reopening some shelters, given concerns about flooding with river cresting in that area, Harmer added.

At the peak of the storm, he continued, 218,840 of the 263,800 Florida Power & Light Co. (FPL) customers in the county had no electricity. As the board was meeting on Sept. 13, he noted, about 87,000 still had no power. (As of noon on Sept. 14, FPL was reporting that the figure had dropped to 66,990.)

“I know some of us up here at the dais can relate to that [situation],” Harmer said. “I know I can, as well.”

Commissioner Alan Maio joked that the three senior commissioners were the ones still without power at home. Later, Commissioner Charles Hines reported that FPL had restored electricity in his Nokomis neighborhood.

Chair Paul Caragiulo noted that as of the morning of Sept. 13, “we’re down to just one piece of critical infrastructure that is not back up yet.”

Of the 70 critical county facilities served by FPL, Harmer responded, 58 lost power during the storm.

As of that morning, Harmer continued, 76 of the county’s 243 traffic signals still were not functioning. At the height of the storm, he said, 178 were not operational. He urged members of the public to treat any intersection without a working stoplight as a four-way stop situation, with the applicable rules of the road.

(By 10:30 a.m. on Sept. 14, the county website reported that only five traffic signals remained without power.)

A Sarasota Police Department vehicle block motorists from heading west to Lido Beach after the hurricane evacuations on Sept. 9. Photo courtesy of SPD via Twitter

Caragiulo noted that his wife and children headed out of the area before the storm hit. The location where they stayed, he said, is normally a nine-hour drive away. When they returned, he added, it took them 17 hours. However, Caragiulo continued, his wife reported seeing vast numbers of utility trucks headed to Florida, “like nothing short of a military operation … a very welcome invasion of assets.”

Additionally, Harmer told the board, the county’s 911 Dispatch system received almost 14,000 calls over the three primary days of storm impact. The average was 3,400 a day, he said, compared to the typical average of 1,700 per day.

The county Contact Center handled almost 10,000 calls during the same three-day period, Harmer noted — “almost a month’s worth.”

Although the county has many older residents who still prefer actual print newspapers to social media, Harmer continued, the county did see a surge of interest in its Twitter and Facebook reports related to Irma. For example, he said, on Twitter, the county recorded 2.4 million “impressions,” referring to the number of views of tweets. On Facebook, he noted, the county registered 252,000 engagements with the public and it had 177,000 views of its hurricane briefing videos.

The county website had 958,000 page views during the same period, he added.

“We are open for business,” Harmer pointed out of county operations, “but we are still in this recovery phase. … We continue to ask for patience.”

Storm debris removal would be “ramping up,” he added, though residents who are able to gather materials into normal, household-size bundles will have their debris picked up more quickly.

Still, he stressed, “You do not have to bag and bundle your storm debris,” noting that some confusion had arisen about an earlier message on the county’s website indicating otherwise.

Sarasota County Emergency Management and Emergency Services personnel work in the Emergency Operations Center on Cattlemen Road on Sept. 8. Photo courtesy of Tom Harmer via Twitter

Removal of large piles of storm debris is scheduled to begin on Monday, Sept. 18, the county website has been reporting, and that will continue until the work has been completed.

On a storm-related business item, Harmer won unanimous support from the commission for a resolution that will allow the county to handle collection of storm debris on private roads and in gated communities. A Florida statute allows such an initiative, Harmer explained, if a county government board approves the appropriate resolution to implement the action.

“We would typically only do this if we get [Federal Emergency Management Act] reimbursement,” he pointed out.

The law also requires the county to provide a written update on the nature of the debris it picks up from those areas, he said.

Commissioner Detert made the motion to approve the collections in gated communities and on private roads; Commissioner Michael Moran seconded it.

Assessing operations after the storm

In the aftermath of Irma’s strike in the area, Harmer told the board members, staff will be critiquing its emergency operations and looking for ways to improve them. Still, he said, “I’m especially proud of the [county] employees, many of them who have been personally impacted by the storm.”

The commissioners concurred with that. “The staff needs tons of applause,” Detert said, while Commissioner Maio talked of everyone at the county’s Emergency Operations Center having smiles on their faces as they worked.

Harmer also pointed out that Todd Bowden, superintendent of the Sarasota County Schools, along with Sheriff Tom Knight and his command staff and other county constitutional officers were regular fixtures at the county’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) during the storm. Bowden, Harmer said, “was very active, hands on, helping us with shelters …”
The county coordinates shelter operations with the school district, which opens facilities that have been hardened for protection against hurricane damage.

Superintendent Todd Bowden. Photo courtesy of the Sarasota County Schools

In discussing the shelter situation, Detert said her only criticism about any of the county’s emergency operations is that “we have to look for something in Venice.” She pointed out that no shelters were available in Venice or Englewood before Irma came through the area.

Venice High and Venice Elementary cannot be used, she continued, because they are subject to flooding, as a result of their location on the island of Venice. “But, really, I think it’s worth talking to the school district about Venice Middle or Garden Elementary. They’re on Center Road,” she added, noting that she believes they are in Evacuation Zone C, which means they are not as vulnerable to storm surge.

Many of the residents of Venice and Englewood are senior citizens, she pointed out, and they had to travel to North Port or to Riverview High School in Sarasota to seek shelter. “It was difficult for them.”

Commissioner Hines concurred with that. “We got lucky that this [hurricane] went from a [Category] 4 to a [Category] 2 pretty quickly, but there’s another one coming.” Part of the post-Irma evaluation has to focus on South County shelters, he said. Additionally, he recommended more be done to make certain the public knows the locations of shelters that are open.

In his report, Harmer also noted that managers of the county’s municipalities spent considerable time at the EOC.

A former City of Sarasota commissioner, Caragiulo said, “For the most part, the communication with the City of Sarasota,” as well as with the City of North Port and the Town of Longboat Key went very well.

Caragiulo also pointed out, “The Governor’s Office has been phenomenal,” and he extended appreciation to U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan of Longboat Key.