The storm, which meteorologist had been monitoring since the day she left the coast of Africa and head on a westerly track would make history in the annals of weather-related history.
Not since Hurricane Andrew roared onto the shores of Southeastern Florida had weather experts seen such a strong and intense storm.The tracking of the storm by NOAA’s Hurricane Center was another challenge, for the storm would change its path on numerous occasions, but by late Friday all were sure she would have an impact on Southwest Florida.
Marco Island Fire Chief Michael Murphy described the event as “Andrew on steroids,” when he addressed the city council on September 5th. He, like Governor Rick Scott, was seeking to make a point to all that would listen, that this event had catastrophe written all over it, and those that chose to not take it seriously would be putting themselves and others in great peril.Throughout all of Collier County and on Marco Island, residents began to scramble to pull together their plans for dealing with this mega-event. Plywood, hardware supplies, water, coolers, flashlights, batteries and all types of supplies were quickly flying off shelves, as was the need to top off vehicles with fuel for the expected exodus from paradise.
City emergency services personnel, in addition to other city department heads, quickly enacted their emergency response plans for this type of event. Interim City Manager Gil Polanco, Fire Chief Murphy and Police Chief Al Schettino would work in tandem with the other staff members throughout the city to insure all elements of the city’s plan were ready in anticipation of the storm.The coordination of everything from fuel for vehicles, to cots to sleep on in the EOC (Emergency Operations Center), was on the list for staff to assemble.
Public works personnel, under the direction of City Construction Manager Mike Daniels and his team, were busy staging a fleet of equipment to quickly deploy their army to clean up the debris, which was sure to block roadways and hinder emergency responses to residents needs, after the event. Some of that equipment, such as front end loaders, dump trucks and other heavy equipment, could be seen when it was initially staged at Marco Island City Hall towards the end of the week, and stood ready to respond to the fury of the impending storm.Inside city hall, staff members were also busy securing important documents and other equipment that were vital to the ongoing operations of the city.
Personnel would also be coordinating with local lodging sites for staging of vehicles and essential personnel who would work throughout the event and after. Marco Island Police Captain Dave Baer would be converting the Marco Police Department’s training room into the EOC for the city staff, in addition to being the voice for the island’s response to the event as the Public Information Officer for the city.LCEC, the provider for electricity on the island, was also gearing up to respond to what they knew would be a major event. They would preposition manpower and equipment to begin their job of restoring the power grid to the island when it became safe. Evacuation
During the entire time staff was dealing with implementing their plan to deal with the storm and its subsequent effects on the island, residents were grappling with the decision of whether to stay or go.
The initial call was for a voluntary evacuation, which was subsequently upgraded to a mandatory order once all the data showed the track of the storm into Southwest Florida and Marco Island.
Jon Busch and his wife Suzan deliberated on whether or not to evacuate. “I know my home was built to all the new standards, but the thoughts of dealing with an historic storm surge in addition to 130 mile per hour winds was enough to have us move to an off-island location with our daughter and granddaughter. Nothing is worth risking their lives,” said Busch. On Saturday, September 9, Busch and his family reluctantly left the island for a location outside the storm surge warning. On Monday, September 11, upon his return he commented on his decision. “When we came back across the bridge I knew we had made the right call for my family,” said Busch.
After many turns and twists over the week prior to her arrival, Irma finally made landfall early on Sunday morning, September 10, after slamming into the Florida Keys. The storm was all that Governor Scott and local authorities had warned residents about. The 130- to 150-mile-an-hour winds, coupled with driving rain and flying debris, was a recipe for disaster. The eventual storm surge was not as bad as predicated, but did roll over seawalls throughout the island and was seen covering mailboxes on some city streets.
Those that failed to heed the mandatory evacuation notices on the island were on their own once wind speeds exceeded 45 mph as emergency responders were ordered to shelter in place for their own protection. They did respond to a number of calls as the eye of the storm passed over the island providing for about 45 minutes of calm. “This short span allowed us to go out to assist a few families and provide the necessary aid,” said Firefighter/Paramedic Chris Bowden who worked the EOC for the Marco Island Fire Rescue during the event. “This is why we beg the public to heed the calls for evacuation and take them seriously,” said Bowden. “We don’t want them or our personnel taking unnecessary risks.”
Once the storm did subside around midnight and winds fell below hurricane levels, Marco flooded the streets with fire and EMS, police, public works, utility and employees from LCEC to deal with the aftermath of the storm. They would begin the process of evaluating the damage, prioritizing the work to be done and executing their plans to return the island to normalcy. No sooner had dawn arrived the calls were coming in from residents inquiring as to “when” they could return. In a news conference on Monday morning, Fire Chief Mike Murphy explained that decision was based on the concern for the safety of the citizens. “We have no power or water, major road obstructions were still present. Once the streets were cleared and temporary traffic control measures were installed we made that decision around 10:30 AM to open the bridge. We wanted to insure our residents would be safe upon their arrival,” said Murphy.
Restoring the Island
As of Monday afternoon, September 11, the city was still evaluating the damage done to its infrastructure. Traffic lights, street lights, street signs and damage to buildings were all under review. The need to conduct “wellness checks” on members of the public were one of the other priorities, as many elderly persons had chosen to stay and family members were concerned for their safety. The general public was also evaluating damage to businesses and personal homes.
Large trees, which were here prior to the arrival of many of today’s residents were destroyed, as was other greenery and landscaping which provide Marco with its signature beauty had been uprooted and destroyed as Irma tore its way through the island paradise.
Residents would return home to destroyed pool cages, missing shingles, roof tiles and other damage to their homes, but they remained resilient and wouldn’t let the effects of Irma’s visit deter them. Many could be seen cleaning up their yards, piling up debris at the side of their streets and helping neighbors to accomplish similar tasks. “We had some roof damage, but we survived the storm and that’s the important thing. Our family is intact and the sun is shining; what more could I ask for,” said Neil Snyder as he worked with his family to help with the cleanup of from Irma.
As of Friday, September 15, electricity had been restored to much of Marco Island, although many areas still did not have cable or internet services. Solid Waste Collection Services resumed normal county operations. Supermarkets had opened, and although there were lines, gas was available at some stations during the day. Debris removal continued, and each day that passes the island looks more like its old, beautiful self.