County’s emergency management chief says if Irma heads north after reaching Cuba, storm surge of 6 to 15 feet is possible, with hurricane force winds
URGENT Update: This has become a mandatory evacuation order. Everyone who lives on a barrier island, in a low-lying area or in a mobile home needs to evacuate, because this storm is too unpredictable, Sarasota County Emergency Management Chief Ed McCrane warned on Friday, Sept. 8. The evacuation should be completed by 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 9. Water will be turned off afterward to the barrier islands. All county parks — including county beach parks — will be closed Saturday and Sunday; no lifeguards will be on duty. Four county shelters will be open as of 2 p.m. today: Booker High School and Brookside Middle in Sarasota; and Woodland Middle and Atwater Elementary in South County. More shelters will be opened as needed. Check the county website — scgov.net — and our Facebook page for updates.
Sarasota County Emergency Management staff likely will issue a voluntary evacuation of all residents in the lowest-lying areas as of 7 a.m. Friday, Sept. 8, Ed McCrane, the county’s emergency management chief, announced during a Sept. 7 press conference on Hurricane Irma.
Those areas are in Evacuation Zone A, he pointed out.
After a consultation the morning of Sept. 7 with National Weather Service staff in Ruskin, McCrane said, he learned that even if the hurricane makes the expected turn to the north after it reaches Cuba, the barrier islands and other communities would be expected to see a storm surge ranging between 1 and 6 feet. That would occur after the hurricane is north of Daytona Beach, he noted.
The National Weather Service also predicts tropical storm force winds for Sarasota County as the hurricane moves north of Daytona Beach, McCrane said — winds of 35 to 40 mph, “maybe with some higher gusts,” starting about midday on Sunday, Sept. 10. “We will be getting that wraparound wind to the north.”
If Irma’s track “shifts a little to the west and [it] comes up the spine of Florida,” McCrane pointed out, the storm surge would range between 9 and 15 feet, “which is the worst-case scenario we have been talking about.”
Even a minor change in the storm’s path over a three- to- six-hour period “could have a significant impact on the effects we will get,” he stressed.
“Six feet of storm surge is problematic,” he said. “It is not catastrophic, but it’s problematic for all of our beach hotels and homes, and we want to make sure that nobody gets surprised with water in their home in the middle of the night.”
(As of midafternoon on Sept. 7, no mandatory evacuations had been announced for the City of Sarasota.)
“We think we’ve got till midnight Saturday pretty locked up with good weather,” McCrane continued. “But after that, conditions are going to start to deteriorate, so people need to be cautious on Sunday …”
Yet, he noted, Irma could slow down, which might delay those effects until Monday.
A City of Sarasota news release said, “The National Hurricane Center is forecasting a 70 percent chance of wind gusts in the Sarasota area above 70 mph beginning the evening of Saturday, Sept. 9. Residents are encouraged to know their evacuation zone and the location of the nearby shelters.”
Based on the information that morning from the National Weather Service team in Ruskin, McCrane continued, rain is not expected to be a major concern overall, though some areas of the county could see heavy downpours.
“Most of the rain will be to the east of the storm,” he added.
McCrane and Sarasota County Fire Chief Michael Regnier cautioned the public to put up enough supplies to remain on their own for several days. Regnier explained that protocol for his department dictates that no personnel will leave a fire station if sustained wind of 45 mph or higher is recorded. That standard is designed to protect the crews and to prevent accidents involving trucks with higher levels of gravity, he noted.
Both Sarasota County and the City of Sarasota declared states of emergency on Sept. 7. McCrane explained that that measure “allows us to request and take actions in order to prepare” for the potential impacts of Irma.
Additionally, “City staff is visiting commercial construction sites to ensure these areas are secured,” the city reported on Sept. 7. “Garbage dumpsters have been ordered to be emptied at those sites and construction cranes will be placed in ‘weather vane’ mode,” the city news release added.
“If your yard waste collection day has passed this week,” the release advised, “do not place more yard waste curbside. Instead, take your yard waste to a secure location on your property or contact the City at 941-365-7651 for a special pick up at a minimum charge. The waste could blow away and clog storm drains potentially causing street flooding. Public Works teams are actively clearing storm drains in preparation for this storm.”
During the county press conference, McCrane pointed out that county personnel “are working in very close coordination with our partners,” including other local officials, as well as regional and state personnel.
Every six hours, he said, he and his team are receiving detailed updates from the National Weather Service.
As of the afternoon of Sept. 7, McCrane and city staff reported that county and city administrative offices will remain open on Friday, Sept. 8. However, state offices — including the courts — will closed, McCrane stressed.
Ray Porter, communications specialist for the Sarasota County Tax Collector’s Office, subsequently issued a news release saying that because of the approaching hurricane, “all offices of the Sarasota County Tax Collector, Supervisor of Elections and Property Appraiser will be closed” on Friday.
“Office openings for next week will be posted at the following websites,” he added:
Because the landscape maintenance contractor will be suspending service prior to Irma, the Bobby Jones Golf Club will be closed starting Saturday, Sept. 9, the city news release said.
Regarding county shelter preparations: McCrane explained on Sept. 7 that he and his staff were working with the Sarasota County School District to prepare for opening the facilities, which are hurricane-hardened schools. In fact, he noted, the state has asked the county to be prepared to host evacuees from South Florida. Interstate 75 “traffic counts are pretty high,” McCrane noted, and “hotels are full.
If county staff does decide to open shelters for county residents, he continued, it will make certain to issue the appropriate information via the news media and social media, such as Facebook and Twitter.
He also urged residents to check their evacuation zone through the county’s website or to call the county Contact Center at 941-861-5000. “Lines have been tied up, as you can imagine,” he added of the county’s information number. Therefore, anyone with a smartphone or computer should use that means of checking on storm updates, he said.
Sheriff Tom Knight asked that members of the public not call 911 Dispatch unless they have a genuine emergency. Unfortunately, Knight pointed out, “when people’s anxiety levels go up, they dial 911 for answers.”
Knight stressed that county employees in the Contact Center will have the information people need, not the 911 operators. “Be patient and wait [to] come into queue” for calls to 861-5000, he added.
In answering questions about the county’s shelters, McCrane explained that teachers at the schools serving as shelters are advised to work with custodians to move classroom furniture out of the way to accommodate people who will be staying in the rooms.
If the county opens shelters, the public will be ushered into them and registered, he explained. Pets are welcome at some shelters, he has noted, but people need to check ahead of time to make certain they go only to those shelters if they have pets.
As the storm approaches, he continued, people will be assigned to specific classrooms.
Those planning to go to a shelter should bring their own sleeping bags, cots, air mattresses or folding chairs, he pointed out, along with board games, books and other types of materials they can use to occupy their time and their children’s time quietly. They also need to bring food and water, if they have it, he added.
County staff is working with the school district’s Food and Nutrition Department staff to be able to make food available at some point if the shelters are opened, McCrane explained. However, anyone who plans to go to a shelter should try to eat a good meal before he or she leaves home, he pointed out.
Further, McCrane noted that county staff keeps air conditioning in the shelters at a cool temperature because of the number of people who usually are accommodated within the facilities. Therefore, people should bring blankets and sweaters with them, too. “It could get chilly.”
In response to a question about the Red Cross, McCrane explained that the state has provided incentives to its employees to serve as volunteers in shelters if they are not needed in some other capacity related to their jobs. Likewise, county and school district employees were training that day, he said, to assist in shelters if needed.
“The Red Cross is doing everything they can to bring in additional volunteers,” he pointed out, but many of its regular volunteers are being evacuated from low-lying communities in South Florida.
As for people who want to leave the area: McCrane advised the public to use an online service — and app — called Florida 511, which can tell them the status of traffic on specific roads. If problems arise with congestion on state roads, he continued, the Sheriff’s Office, personnel from other law enforcement agencies and the Florida Highway Patrol will take measures to try to ameliorate the situations. However, as of early afternoon on Sept. 7, he said, I-75 was the only area evacuation route experiencing slowdowns.