Completion of hurricane-hardening project at Taylor Ranch Elementary School expected by early September

Sarasota County School District received state grant funds to modify Venice school for service as an evacuation center

Hurricane Irma closes in on Florida in September 2017. Image from NASA

In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma’s threat to Florida in September 2017, Sarasota County commissioners urged county staff to work on a plan to shelter Venice residents, who had no easy access to safe places to wait out storms.

As Irma made her way toward the Gulf Coast — with National Hurricane Center officials predicting what county Emergency Management Chief Ed McCrane called the worst-case scenario for Sarasota County — Venice Mayor John Holic ordered the Venice Community Center opened as a shelter. That action came over county objections, as the facility is on the island of Venice; the center could have suffered devastating flooding if the National Hurricane Center forecast had proven correct, county Emergency Management leaders stressed.

Rich Collins, the county’s Emergency Services Department director, told members of the Siesta Key Association in May 2018 that Irma’s approach marked the first time that the county ever had implemented its hurricane preparation plans up to the point of expected impact.

The Venice Gondolier Sun reported that the Venice Community Center was filled to capacity with about 400 people.

On June 19, 2019, during a County Commission budget workshop, Collins explained plans to use a $500,000 state grant that would pay for the hurricane hardening of Taylor Ranch Elementary School in Venice.

By the 2020 hurricane season, Collins said, the school should be available as an evacuation center. “That is our goal, to move quickly with the [Sarasota County] School District.”

Taylor Ranch Elementary (marked by the red balloon) is located off U.S. 41 in Venice. Image from Google Maps

Several months later — On Nov. 22, 2019 — the county announced that the school district had received a total of $1,057,700 from the Florida Division of Emergency Management to make improvements to specific schools that serve as hurricane evacuation centers. Along with the hardening of Taylor Ranch, the funds would pay for upgrades at Fruitville Elementary School and Gulf Gate Elementary in Sarasota, as well as North Port High School, the news release said. Among those improvements would be installation of wind impact protection for all windows, mesh impact barriers in exterior areas, including stairways and outdoor restrooms, and improved drainage systems.

On April 16, in response to a question about the status of the Taylor Ranch project, Collins wrote in an email to the county commissioners that he expected the work to be completed “in late August or early September.”

Collins added, “We will continue to work with the School District and will bring the Hurricane Evacuation Center on-line as soon as construction is complete.”

An architect had been hired, he reported. However, he pointed out, “with the COVID-19 outbreak, there is work on adding additional language [to the contract] for Force Majeure.”

Force majeure is a contractual defense that allows a party to suspend or discontinue performance of its contractual obligations under specific circumstances. It may also operate to limit a contract party’s liability,” the law firm McDermott Will & Emery explains in a frequently-asked-questions discussion online. “What constitutes a force majeure event is determined on a case-by-case basis and depends upon the terms of the relevant contract, applicable law and other relevant facts,” the firm’s article adds.

“Many force majeure provisions include a list of specific events that are not ‘reasonably foreseeable’ and that are also beyond the parties’ control. A global pandemic such as COVID-19 (or its downstream effects and consequences) will likely qualify as a force majeure event if the provision specifically includes references to a ‘pandemic,’ ‘epidemic’ and/or ‘disease,’” the online discussion says.

Commissioner Charles Hines, who represents South County, responded to Collins on April 20. “Now with schools officially closed for the rest of the year,” Hines wrote, “please push [this] so that this gets going asap. Hurricane season is just around the corner — as you know.”

Finally, Hines added, “If you need our Board to push the School District please let us know.”

Rich Collins addresses members of the news media on Sept. 22, 2017 as a debris collection crew works in the background. Image courtesy Sarasota County Government on Facebook

Taylor Ranch will be the 12th general population evacuation center for the county, the November 2019 news release pointed out. The upgrades to the school will add space for approximately 1,280 persons “in the event of a high-impact hurricane” aiming for the Sarasota County shoreline, the release noted.

On April 2, researchers at Colorado State University forecast an above-normal hurricane season, citing the expectation of 16 named storms — up from an average of 12.1 — and four major hurricanes, meaning those in Categories 3 through 5. Among the probabilities for one of the latter to strike, the Colorado State team wrote, “Gulf Coast from the Florida Panhandle westward to Brownsville [Texas] — 44% (average for last century is 30%).”

With North Carolina having suffered through a number of major storm events in recent years, North Carolina State University meteorologists issued their own predictions about a week ago. They are calling for 18 to 22 named storms, with eight to 11 expected to become hurricanes and three to five forecast to develop into major storms with winds of at least 111 mph, WCTI-TV in New Bern, N.C., reported.

Lian Xie, professor of marine, earth and atmospheric sciences at N.C. State, said his research showed “the Gulf of Mexico may see more storm formation this year, with the likelihood of six to ten named storms and two to five becoming hurricanes,” the WCTI article noted. During an average year,” the article continued, “statistics show the Gulf typically sees three named storms develop there and one becoming a hurricane.”
Xie’s methodology evaluated “more than 100 years of historical data on Atlantic Ocean hurricane positions and intensity, as well as other variables, including weather patterns and sea-surface temperatures, to predict how many storms will form in each ocean basin,” the N.C. State report pointed out.