County’s emergency management chief points to the 2016 tornado and Tropical Storm Debby in 2012 to remind residents of the need to be prepared

Ed McCrane recommends registration for the county’s CodeRed notification system and designating a ‘safe room’ in homes

Tropical Storm Debby produced this flooding in June 2012 in Sarasota County. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In the past five years, Siesta Key residents have had two significant reminders about the dangers of storms, Sarasota County’s emergency management chief pointed out to Siesta Key Association (SKA) members on June 1: the January 2016 tornado and Tropical Storm Debby in 2012.

Ed McCrane encouraged the approximately 60 people present to be prepared not only for hurricane season — which began the day of the meeting — but also for severe weather events that can occur year-round.

People have many types of warning systems from which to choose, he pointed out, including weather radios and smartphone apps. He strongly recommended that people sign up for the county’s CodeRed alert system, whose registration form is available through the county’s website:

Although the county has about 400,000 residents, McCrane said, registrations for CodeRed total approximately 800,000, as people enter information for their homes, their businesses and rental housing they own.

The Integrated Public Alert and Warning System notified people of the potential for a tornado before the Key was struck at 3:10 a.m. on Jan. 17, 2016, he continued. “I talked to some of the people at the Excelsior [condominium complex] that were on the top floor that lost the roof,” McCrane told the SKA audience. “Their cellphones went off and said, ‘Tornado warning. Seek cover immediately.’ They all ran into the bathroom.”

The Excelsior on the Gulf of Mexico side of Siesta Key suffered significant damage to its facilities as a result of the 2016 tornado. Rachel Hackney photo

After the tornado had passed over the building, he added, they came out and looked up. “They could see the stars. … [The warning] saved their lives.”

The alerts go out only to the areas expected to suffer severe weather, he pointed out. That was why some people received the notification in advance of the tornado, he said, and some did not.

People have asked him, he continued, why no sirens are used in this area to warn people about tornado threats. The reason, he explained, is that salt air destroys the equipment. Sirens have to be placed every quarter-of-a-mile to be effective, he added, and they cost $20,000 apiece. Moreover, McCrane said, given the insulation in most houses, people are less likely to hear them, “and they don’t always work.”

Recently, when an area in Alabama was struck by tornadoes, he pointed out, six sirens did not function, so people did not know to take cover; some perished.

Weather radar shows the lines of severe thunderstorms that produced the 2016 tornado. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The Debby event

Turning to Tropical Storm Debby, McCrane called it “a gentle reminder that we live in the tropics.”

When the storm was moving up from the south in 2012, he said, he called police and fire chiefs and asked about conditions. They assured him all was fine, he continued. “But then I noticed flooding,” he said, and he learned that county Utilities Department workers were hauling sewage off Siesta Key because rising water was threatening to overwhelm the treatment plant adjacent to Siesta Isles.

“The tide was really creeping up,” and higher winds were coming inland from the storm’s outer bands, McCrane pointed out. The Myakka River surpassed its flood stage, he noted, and “I remember Siesta Key had water in the streets,” probably because storm drains could not keep up with the rising tide.

Boats sit aground in downtown Sarasota in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Debby in 2012. File photo

Boats in downtown Sarasota ended up being blown on the shore, he said.

“Debby was a wake-up call,” McCrane added, as it produced a surge 2 to 3 feet above the normal tide level.

Still, he said, “we got lucky with that one.”

Although it did cause significant erosion in some areas of the county — including Turtle Beach — it was nothing compared to Hurricane Katrina, he told the audience: Katrina’s storm surge in Louisiana was 39 feet.

‘Don’t be scared; be prepared’

Preparation is the key to surviving a storm, McCrane explained. The county’s annual Disaster Planning Guide lists 10 important steps, he said, to ensure everyone is ready in the event of a natural disaster. The 2017 issue should be available soon on the county’s website, he added. Go to and then look for the Emergency Services heading at the bottom of the page. Click on All Hazards — Be Prepared.”

Rich Collins, the county’s emergency services director, noted that predictions call for as many as four major hurricanes this year. “It only takes one,” he said. (Collins spoke briefly to the audience before McCrane began his presentation.)

A single house remains standing as the storm surge flows over a barrier island in Texas during Hurricane Ike’s strike in 2008. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Because some counties were late getting their information to the printer, McCrane explained, he was not certain when the latest guide would be distributed. After it has been completed, he said, copies will be available not only on the county website but also in all county libraries and in other county buildings. Associations such as the SKA may request copies for members, too, he noted.

Speaking of personal preparation: “Go home tonight,” McCrane said, “and look at your house and find your safe room,” which should be well away from doors and windows. An interior bathroom or closet usually is the best choice, he advised. A good idea — especially for families with small children — is to keep socks and shoes in the safe room, he added. That way, if a storm shatters glass, people can safely move through their homes after the danger period has ended.

The people on the mainland who were injured during the 2016 tornado strike, McCrane said, were asleep on the second floor of their house when the alert sounded on their phones. As they tried to reach the first floor, he pointed out, the house collapsed on top of them.

When a severe weather alert goes off, he told the audience, “find that safe room as quickly as possible.”

As for planning in advance of a potential hurricane strike: McCrane advised everyone to make certain he or she has enough supplies to stay at home for at least 72 hours. The slogan people should keep in mind, he said, is “The first 72 is on you.”

“When the trees are down and boats are in the roadway and power lines are down,” he pointed out, “we cannot get to you.”

Sarasota County Emergency Management personnel urge the public to take three important steps to prepare for natural disasters. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Asked about re-entry to Siesta Key in the aftermath of a major storm, McCrane explained that First Responders and utility crews first would check the island to learn the extent of damage. As soon as it was safe enough to allow the public to make trips to their homes and businesses to ascertain the level of storm impact, McCrane said, then Emergency Management staff and law enforcement officers would set up credentialing sites at both the north and south bridges. A person would have to show proof that he or she lives on the Key or owns property on the Key, he continued. A photo ID would have a homeowner’s address, for example, he said, while a utility bill could be used by a business owner to verify that person’s need to go onto the island.

For every person wishing to drive onto the Key, McCrane said, a photo ID would be necessary.

Then the person would receive a wristband, he added. “Anybody without a wristband will be stopped and questioned by law enforcement. … We’re going to do everything we can to keep looters away from your homes.”

Law enforcement officers also will patrol the waterways by boat and air, he said, noting that he had been in situations in the aftermath of hurricanes when people intent on looting tried to pass themselves off as owners of homes or businesses in the affected area. That is why the wristband is a necessity, he pointed out.

A poster advises members of the public to prepare to be on their own for 72 hours in the aftermath of a hurricane strike. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Another audience member asked about whether people who live in condominiums should stay in them instead of evacuating, if a hurricane strike is predicted.

“The higher you go,” McCrane explained, “the worse it can be because of the winds.”

In 2005, he said, Hurricane Wilma blew through Naples and then exited the state in the area of Fort Lauderdale, shattering windows in all the high-rise buildings. “Very dangerous. So we ask you to evacuate.”

After McCrane concluded his presentation, SKA President Harold Ashby told McCrane, “You sure scared the heck out of me.”

“Don’t be scared; be prepared,” McCrane responded, citing another Emergency Management maxim.