Among the measures will be a transportation plan with rally points where people may leave vehicles and catch rides to evacuation centers
Editor’s note: This article was updated on the afternoon of May 11 to correct information about the Sarasota County Government webpage with information about using computers at county libraries to register for assistance.
Along with significant changes in how Sarasota County will order evacuations in advance of an approaching hurricane, staff also has established a list of 17 “rally points” to aid people who cannot drive themselves to an evacuation center.
Ed McCrane, the county’s emergency management chief, and Rich Collins, emergency services director for the county, addressed Siesta Key Association(SKA) residents on May 3, bringing them up-to-date on the new procedures.
“We discovered that a lot of people don’t drive anymore,” McCrane pointed out as he discussed the county’s response to Hurricane Irma in September 2017. Many older residents, especially who live well away from designated evacuation centers, he said, need some means of reaching those places.
As a result, McCrane continued, staff has created the rally points, where people will be able to leave their vehicles and catch a ride to a center. Emergency Services staff has worked with Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) and the Sarasota County School District to implement this new system, McCrane explained.
Those who cannot drive at all will be picked up and transported to the evacuation centers, he pointed out.
After the emergency is over and people are ready to return to their homes, he said, those who needed the rides will be returned to the rally points or to their homes.
Members of the public will be able to register in advance if they do not drive or feel they will need help, McCrane added.
“We don’t know how many people are going to need that [assistance],” he said.
The transportation plan lists rally points from Englewood to Longboat Key. North Port has three rally points: the George Mullen Activity Center at 1602 Kramer Way; the North Port Library at 13800 Tamiami Trail; and the new Suncoast Technical College on North Cranberry Boulevard. Venice also has three: Garden Elementary School at 700 Center Road; Taylor Ranch Elementary at 2500 Taylor Ranch Trail; and the Venice Community Center at 326 Nokomis Ave. South.
Sarasota County Commission Chair Nancy Detert has called upon staff on several occasions since Irma struck the state to find better means of assisting Venice residents who need to leave their homes, as no facilities in that area are designated as evacuation centers.
Collins explained during the May 3 SKA meeting that Sarasota County is among the few counties in Florida that have undertaken engineering studies to determine the safest buildings among their schools to use as centers.
(McCrane stressed that staff no longer will use the term “shelter.”)
Registering for help
The Transportation Plan webpage points out that all county libraries have computers available for the public to use for the online transportation registration system, if persons do not have computers at home.
The registration form, the page notes, “will include guidance for those who cannot drive or walk to a designated rally point.” It also explains, “Rally points may change depending on the severity of a storm. Residents who pre-register will receive an automated telephone message with information about the location of rally points and when they will be picked up.”
The webpage further notes that the online registration process will cease when landfall of a hurricane is expected within 60 hours.
Furthermore, the webpage reminds the public that space on the buses will be limited, so no one will be allowed more than “two carry-on sized bags” that can be stored under a seat or held in a lap.
Evacuation levels instead of zones
During the period when Irma was expected to strike, Collins told the approximately 40 SKA members in attendance on May 3, the county and the Sarasota County School District had about 20,000 people and about 2,200 pets spread among its shelters. People with special needs because of health conditions were in three shelters, he added.
“Our school district partners did a phenomenaljob of opening up shelters for us,” Collins said, and the National Guard assisted with the managing the facilities.
Irma’s approach marked the first time, he continued, that the county ever had implemented its hurricane preparation plans up to the point of expected impact.
Following Irma’s strike, Collins said, the County Commission agreed to staff’s proposal for an in-depth “after action” report to determine what went well among all the plans and operations and what needed tweaking. Collins added that he has seen such reviews encompass six or seven pages in reports. The Sarasota County after action review is 80 pages, he added, and staff has been working through the 93 recommendations it contained.
McCrane then talked of the changes being implemented in regard to evacuation centers. In the past, he pointed out, the county used zones — with A including all the barrier islands — to alert people if they should leave in advance of a storm. However, he said, one problem staff encountered during Irma was a misunderstanding on the part of mobile home residents. Some thought that if they were in Zone C — well away from the shoreline — they did not need to evacuate. As a result McCrane said, the county will use evacuation levels, and it will provide more details about who should evacuate. For example, he said, a Level A evacuation would mean all persons living on the barrier islands, as well as those in mobile homes and in the county’s lowest-lying areas, would need to seek another place to ride out the storm.
Emergency Services staff will use street grids, too, when at all possible, McCrane noted, to try to make it clearer to the public about the areas that should be evacuated. Staff spent a lot of time trying to figure out the best way to provide more details for the alerts, he added. For example, zip codes were suggested as a means of reference. However, he said, because of the number of creeks and bayous that flow inland, zip codes would not work.
Additionally, McCrane continued, staff no longer will reference “mandatory” or “voluntary” evacuations. Instead, staff will say, for example, “We are evacuating Level A …”
If you evacuate …
McCrane also stressed that the evacuation centers are designed to house people for 24 to 48 hours. “You get 20 square feet of carpet,” he added. Everyone planning to go to a center should bring his or her own bedding and personal items to occupy the time, he pointed out. “They’re very, very rough conditions.”
Additionally, he emphasized, not all of the centers will have generators. Staff will explain what procedures will be followed if the power is lost, he said, adding the suggestion that people include flashlights among the materials they take with them.
All centers will be pet-friendly, he continued. “Our five pet-friendly shelters became 11 pet-friendly shelters [during Irma]. We even had a goat in one of them.”
McCrane also advised the SKA audience members that if they have friends who live outside Florida who visit them during season, they should consider “returning the favor” and asking to stay with those friends if a hurricane is approaching the state.
Moreover, he said, people who are not in evacuation areas who live in newer homes constructed to meet up-to-date building code standards, with storm shutters and plenty of supplies, should consider staying at home.
McCrane stressed that people who live in areas designated for evacuation should leave. “Don’t ride it out,” he said of an approaching storm.
After Irma, he continued, a couple of Siesta Key residents told him that they had watched the hourly updates provided by ABC 7 and felt Irma was taking a more easterly track, so they stayed on the island. If Irma had continued on the western track predicted by the National Hurricane Center, McCrane added, “that would have been a very ugly storm.” Those people who did not evacuate the island, he added, could have been isolated by floodwaters and/or damage to the drawbridges, leaving them unreachable if they experienced medical emergencies.
County staff is undertaking a major overhaul of its annual disaster planning guide, McCrane continued; it should be out later this month. He recommended people follow directions in that guide for putting together disaster kits.
If people do decide to leave their homes, McCrane suggested they stay away from Interstate 75. Instead, he said they should take State Road 70 or 72 to head east and then take U.S 17, U.S. 27 or Interstate 95. “Make sure you have a full tank of gas,” he said, as fewer service stations are available on those routes.
Given the population in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, he pointed out, I-75 likely will be extremely congested, as it was during evacuations ahead of Irma. He referred to it as “a big parking lot.”
Another change in county procedures will be the issuance of “mini updates” if a storm is approaching. Those will last perhaps 2 to 3 minutes, he said, providing late-breaking details to the public between the longer briefings that will be offered.
County staff will begin providing messages to the public about 120 to 140 hours before a hurricane is expected to reach the area, he added.
Furthermore, the county’s website will be more user-friendly, he noted, with “easy buttons to click” for people searching for information.