Series of storms in 2017 leads to new state admonition that people should be able to take care of themselves for a week, not 72 hours, after hurricane hits

That information and updates about county procedures part of 2019 hurricane season presentation for Siesta Key Association members

This is the prediction for the 2019 hurricane season provided by researchers at Colorado State University. Image courtesy Sarasota County Emergency Management

In the past, Sarasota County’s emergency management chief told Siesta Key Association (SKA) members on May 2, he used to advise people to be prepared to be on their own for the first 72 hours after a natural disaster occurs, such as a hurricane strike.

However, Ed McCrane continued, 2017’s series of storms has led to the necessity of changing that guideline. With Hurricanes Harvey and then Irma and then Maria devastating so many different areas — and other natural disasters, such as California’s wildfires, having become more frequent — Florida Emergency Management leaders have made it known, McCrane said, that people should have enough supplies set aside to manage on their own for a full week.

“FEMA is only so big,” he added, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

With a tropical disturbance unsettling the weather at the very time he was speaking, McCrane encouraged the approximately 60 audience members to pick up copies of the new Disaster Planning Guide he had brought for them. This was his first opportunity to distribute the materials, he pointed out.

McCrane also had new slides in his presentation to underscore the need for people to evacuate if a hurricane is coming and they live in an area vulnerable to storm surge.

Early this year, he said, he took what he called the “scenic route” as he traveled through the Panhandle to get a firsthand look at the devastation Hurricane Michael wrought last fall.

The storm was a Category 5 when it made landfall near Mexico Beach, new data show.

This is an area of the Panhandle following Hurricane Michael in October 2018. Image courtesy Sarasota County Emergency Management

Michael’s storm surge was 18 feet, McCrane pointed out. Hurricane Katrina of 2005 holds the record, he added: 34 feet.

Michael started out as a tropical depression, he explained. In 12 hours, it strengthened from a Category 1 to a Category 3, he said; then, within 72 hours, it was a Category 5 — the highest level for a hurricane.

Because of the width of the Continental Shelf in proximity to Florida, he continued, 18 to 20 feet probably would be the maximum storm surge, or storm tide, that any part of the Sarasota County shoreline ever would see. “We expected 6 to 10 feet of storm tide [with Irma],” he pointed out. Yet, after that storm came ashore at Marco Island in September 2017, McCrane noted, it headed east. “We only got Category 1 winds, at that.”

In fact, he added, because of the flow of the wind, water actually drained out of Sarasota Bay for a while, stranding boats and even manatees.

Audience members gasped when McCrane clicked through slides showing the Panhandle after Michael’s 2018 hit.

As he drove through the affected area in February, he said, he saw “no gas stations, no restaurants, no ‘Mom and Pop’ stores” that remained open. “Everything was destroyed.”

Dangers of storm surge

Key West residents deal with the storm surge produced by Hurricane Georges in 1998. Image courtesy Sarasota County Emergency Management

All of Siesta Key is in what county staff has designated Level A, McCrane explained. That comprises the areas most vulnerable to storm surge.

In the aftermath of Irma, he continued, an in-depth review of county procedures led to 93 recommendations for changes. Staff has completed about 85% of those, McCrane said. One of the most important, he indicated, was a switch to the use of “flood levels” instead of “flood zones.”

He and his staff found out after Irma, McCrane noted, that even though all mobile home park residents should evacuate in advance of a potential hurricane strike, some county residents leaned that even though they lived in such housing, they were in zones considered far less likely to flood. Thus, they did not leave their homes.

If a person is uncertain about the evacuation level in which that person lives, McCrane explained, the person can go to the county website — www.scgov.net — and click on the part of the bar at the top of the page that says, “I want to …” The screen that comes up, he noted, has another list of headings. One of those is “Find.” By scrolling down, the person will see “My Evacuation Level.” After clicking on that link, the person can enter his or her address and then find out the level.

One audience member pointed out to McCrane that many newer condominium buildings on the Key appear to be strong enough to withstand a major hurricane. Why, then, the man asked, should residents in such buildings evacuate?

If a person lives on an upper floor, McCrane responded, the person will experience higher winds at that altitude than if the person were closer to the ground, and those winds could break windows.

The ramp to a Gulf Coast community’s bridge reflects hurricane damage. Image courtesy Sarasota County Emergency Management

Additionally, McCrane said, “Storm surge has a way of eroding and undermining structures. Your building will be surrounded by water.”

If the person were to suffer a medical emergency, McCrane added, no one would be able to respond.

Furthermore, he said, the building likely would not have air conditioning after the storm or even water to flush the toilets, based on the design of water systems in most high-rise structures. The elevators also would not work.

“It’s not a safe place to be,” McCrane summed up the situation. “You put first responders in harm’s way when you stay.”

The bridges to Siesta also could be damaged, McCrane pointed out. One of his slides illustrated major damage to the ramp leading to a bridge on the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of a hurricane this century.

McCrane also noted that he had talked with people who did not evacuate in advance of storms, after they had been advised to do so. Following their experiences with the hurricanes, they told him they never again would stay in place, he added.

In fact, McCrane said, as he was driving along the beach in Pensacola in February, a man ran out of a crumbling building toward McCrane’s four-wheel-drive SUV. “He rode out [Michael] with his two dogs,” McCrane noted. “He said he’d never do that again.”

Still, McCrane continued, if someone feels it absolutely necessary to shelter at home after being urged to evacuate, the person should let Sarasota County Emergency Management know.

(In past presentations to SKA members about hurricane season, McCrane has indicated that such information assists first responders as they search for survivors in heavily damaged areas.)

Evacuation center changes

This is the list of schools that would serve as shelters for Sarasota County residents this hurricane season. Image courtesy Sarasota County Emergency Management

Among other changes in the aftermath of Irma, McCrane noted, the county Emergency Management staff has worked with the leaders of the Sarasota County School District to adjust procedures for evacuation centers.

This year, McCrane said, 11 schools are available for use as such facilities. He cautioned the SKA members that because these are schools, they will not have backup generators. Moreover, he stressed, each person in an evacuation center will have essentially “20 square feet of carpet.” Anyone planning to go to a center should have his or her own supplies, including an air mattress or sleeping bag, and all necessary personal items.

An evacuation center, he said, “should be your last resort. … We can’t accommodate all of the evacuees. We don’t have enough space. No county in Florida does.”

Each center in Sarasota County can handle about 3,000 people.

McCrane suggested people think of the facilities as “the lifeboat, not the ‘Love Boat.’”

And after school district staff found plenty of people in 2017 showing up with pets at shelters not designated to accommodate animals, McCrane continued, the decision was made for every evacuation center to be able to handle pets. His staff has worked with school district staff, he added, to identify rooms at each of the 11 schools with tile and other hard surfaces, where pets could be housed.

He also emphasized that every pet must be in a crate, and he urged the SKA members to train their pets to use crates and carriers, instead of trying to force their animals into such structures in an emergency.

Another lesson county staff learned with Irma, McCrane explained, is that a number of people cannot drive far enough from their homes to reach a shelter. As a result, the Emergency Management staff has established a list of “rally points,” where people can leave their vehicles and board buses to go to evacuation centers.

Those who cannot drive and need a ride, he said, may register on the county’s website — again, by clicking on the “I want to …” heading and going to the “Transportation” line under “Register.”

“You’ll get a call if we’re evacuating,” he added.

Likewise, people with medical conditions who need special assistance during an evacuation can register through the county website, McCrane noted.

Shelter decision-making

This graphic shows the storm surge levels for Sarasota County. Image courtesy Sarasota County Emergency Management

People in areas that are not vulnerable to storm surge, who live in homes built after 2002 that have special hurricane hardening features — with storm shutters and impact-resistant glass — “can pretty much stay home,” he explained. If they do not feel sufficiently safe in their homes, he continued, they should ask to stay with friends in a residence with storm-resistant modifications.

People planning to drive to an area of the state that appears likely to be out of harm’s way should make certain to fill the gas tanks of their vehicles and consider staying off Interstate 75, he said. State Roads 64 and 66, McCrane pointed out, used to be well known as the “Florida Cracker Trail.” They go east, just as State Roads 70 and 72 head inland to Arcadia.

It will take a long time to get to a destination via I-75, he stressed. On a typical day, he continued, about 30,000 vehicles drive across Alligator Alley and up I-75. The week before Irma hit the state, he added, 110,000 vehicles a day made that trip.

And if you do stay on the East Coast with a storm projected to hit the West Coast, fill up your gas tank as soon as you arrive at your destination, SKA Director Joe Volpe recommended.

He and his wife went to Daytona Beach before Irma was supposed to hit, Volpe said, but they had to stay longer than planned because they had to await gasoline deliveries.

“Until they learn how to fly those [tankers] over us,” McCrane responded, “we’re going to have fuel problems.”

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