The Sarasota County Commission chairwoman and a Sarasota County School Board member this week defended the decision to close schools on Monday as a precaution with then-Tropical Storm Isaac’s path uncertain.
School board member Shirley Brown told Emergency Management Chief Ed McCrane during a joint County Commission/School Board meeting on Aug. 29 that while “we got flak and you did” for the closing, “it’s the luck of the draw. We just don’t know where hurricanes will go.”
Brown pointed out that schools on Florida’s east coast were closed Monday and Tuesday because of flooding.
An Aug. 28 story in the Sun Sentinel reported that central and western Palm Beach County “took the brunt of the waves of rain bands that spun off [Isaac] Sunday and Monday, drenching neighborhoods with 15 inches of rain.”
“We need to be careful not to get too complacent with a Category 1 [storm],” Brown continued. “Let’s count our blessings and not complain.”
“Thank you,” McCrane told her.
“This is not just a light switch you flip on and off, as some people have alluded to,” Commission Chairwoman Christine Robinson said of the storm preparations.
“The schools had to be closed. They did not know how long we were going to be [using the shelters],” she added. “It is a partnership [with school officials] in making these decisions, too,” Robinson said. “We need to probably explain that a little better in the future.”
“We work very closely with the superintendent [Lori White],” McCrane said, “and our goal [Monday] night was to have everything done in time” for schools to reopen on Tuesday.
The day before the joint board meeting, County Administrator Randall Reid told The Sarasota News Leader that county staff needed about a 16-hour window to prepare for evacuations. Because of that time factor, he said, closing decisions could not delayed for too long as Emergency Management staff monitored the path of a storm.
With the public schools closed on Aug. 27, McCrane said during the Aug. 29 meeting, his staff utilized two schools as shelters for special needs residents in Sarasota County. One shelter ended up with 50 people, while the other housed 65, he said. About half of them need oxygen, he pointed out.
“It’s a very important service, and we are glad we were able to provide it to our citizens.”
The county has about 5,100 people on its special needs registry, McCrane said. On Saturday, he added, 65 county employees called the 1,164 special needs registrants in the areas where flooding from Isaac was anticipated, he said.
About 300 accepted the offer of staying in a shelter, McCrane said, but about half of them “decided not to come” after Isaac’s path began veering westward, away from Southwest Florida.
McCrane said that on Aug. 28, he had met with the principals at the schools used as shelters, to thank them.
Because of the relationship between the county and the School Board, he said, Sarasota County has the best shelter capabilities for special needs residents of any county in the state of Florida and perhaps of any state in the nation.
Not only did Sarasota County Area Transit buses help transport people to the shelters, McCrane said, but school buses also were used for the effort.
He praised Ellery Girard, the school district’s transportation director, and Girard’s staff.
“We were able to transport these people very quickly and safely to their destination,” McCrane said.
When questioned about the use of school buses for that purpose, McCrane pointed out that the school district has many special needs students, so it has buses equipped with wheelchair lifts, for example, that are vital in evacuating the county’s special needs residents.
McCrane also told the two boards that when the school district completes the rebuilding of Booker High School on North Orange Avenue, the school will be able to withstand winds of 170 mph, so it can used as a shelter for 2,400 residents.
“And it will serve the citizens of North Sarasota County who need a shelter desperately,” McCrane said.
The $58 million Booker rebuild is expected to be completed in August 2013.
Additionally, McCrane said, “Many people do not know Wilkinson Elementary is our alternate [Emergency Management] facility.”
Because county officials learned a couple of years ago that the Administration Center on Ringling Boulevard cannot withstand a hurricane stronger than a Category 3, county staff worked with the school district staff to modify Wilkinson for use as an Emergency Operations Center until the county’s new EOC is completed on Cattlemen Road in the spring of 2014.
“We can’t wait to give [Wilkinson] back to you in two years when we have our own building,” McCrane told the School Board members.
Know your zone
In response to a question from Brown, McCrane also explained about a new feature this year designed to educate the public about storm surge zones.
Every TRIM notice that went out this year from the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office had a notation on it indicating the taxpayer’s evacuation zone.
Anne Miller, the logistics chief in the Emergency Management office, worked with the property appraiser’s office to make that possible, McCrane said.
A person also can visit the county website to check out the evacuation zones, he added.
Finally, McCrane pointed out that his staff had been working on a project to make sure “collars” were put on stop signs in the county to designate the evacuation zones where the signs stand.
“Longboat Key doesn’t want to do it,” he joked. “They said just put a big ‘A’ on the [Ringling] bridge, and [they’ll] figure it out.”
The A zone is the most low-lying zone in the county.