Friday, September 21, 2018

Lessons Learned From Irma 


Whether it was in a coffee shop, at a local restaurant, in the grocery store or at the pharmacy you would inevitably run into a friend or a neighbor and the conversation would eventually turn to a discussion of where you were last year. 

On Sunday, September 10, 2017 Hurricane Irma roared ashore here on Marco Island and left a reminder to us all as to who was the boss. All the technology in the world couldn’t do anything to stop her, and although it gave us plenty of time to get ready, she would be the determining factor as to where she would go. 

Meteorologists were constantly changing the “spaghetti trails” they would show us on our television screens depicting their best guesses. I’m not sure if you emptied the kettles of all the pasta being boiled at our favorite Italian eateries on the island that there would be enough to help them plan for the path she would eventually take. 

A good friend of mine and fraternity brother from college days who serves as a meteorologist on one of the tracking planes that monitor these behemoth storms said even they were perplexed by the erratic movements of the storm until she finally made the turn to Southwest Florida. He has always been pretty accurate, and even warned me well ahead of time that Wilma, in 2005 would be a problem for us.  

Our emergency management personnel, both at the state, county and local level would keep a close watch for the week before the storm would arrive. Governor Scott deserves praise for his early warning to Florida residents to take seriously the threat that this storm presented to the entire state. His early pleadings to residents to evacuate low lying coastal areas probably resulted in countless lives being saved. 

Collier County Emergency Management personnel were watching with a cautious eye as to the progress of the storm. They had issued voluntary evacuation orders early on, however it was the city’s staff, under the direction of Interim-City Manager Guillermo Polanco, in consultation with Police Chief Al Schettino and Fire Rescue Chief Mike Murphy that pulled the trigger on a Mandatory Evacuation Order for the island prior to the county staff doing so. 

Even though residents had warning well in advance, some still hesitated, while others swarmed local hardware and building supply locations to acquire everything from plywood to flashlights to prepare for the assault by Mother Nature. 

If there is one thing that sticks out in my mind, it is the early warnings we have today for impending storms such as Wilma and Irma. Keeping that in mind, I always remember my dad telling the story of the hurricane of 1938 slamming into New York and New England and how my grandparents sent him running down to the local movie theatre to extract his younger sister and bring her home, just before the storm was to hit and devastate the area.   

That storm in 1938 killed 600 people on Long Island and another 100 in the New England states.  Nine-thousand homes were destroyed and another 15,000 damaged. That storm did approximately $350 million in damage in 1938 which is the equivalent of approximately $6 billion today. 

In Florida we have some of the most stringent building codes in the country, and for good reason.  Even with those codes, Irma did approximately $50 billion in damage within Florida, and a great deal of that is still being repaired. Another 75 fatalities were attributed to the storm, either directly or indirectly. 

We live in an age of instantaneous communications, allowing us to be well briefed before a storm will impact our area. The only problem that comes is when we refuse to listen to the warnings or are not prepared. 

Contractors can still be seen scurrying around the island. Some of the beachfront condos, especially those that never took the initiatives to “harden” their structures, were impacted more than other buildings. However, those that had taken the proactive approach to upgrading windows or doors, or to have installed shutters, had lesser damage. 

The blue tarps are still in evidence around the island on single family homes and on some multi-family dwellings, as roofers continue to work around the clock to dry in and install new shingles, metal or tile roofs. The replacement of damaged or destroyed bushes and trees are still being done, as well as new screen cages around Marco. 

Believe it or not, we dodged a bullet with Irma. Her slight shift to the east and the breakup of the back of the storm spared us from a more serious impact. That statement is not meant to minimize the damage we suffered as a result of the event. 

Irma and the resulting days after her impact can be seen as a teaching lesson to us all. We need to stay focused on the information flow from our emergency management personnel, and be prepared to implement our own family plans to secure our homes and evacuate to safety. 

If you leave the island for extended travels during the summer months be careful to not leave a refrigerator or freezer packed with food. Should power go out for several days, as it can, you will have a mess that you or friends won’t want to deal with. 

Those in the home watch business were also inundated with calls to have them secure furniture or boats. That is really your responsibility, unless you have other arrangement made with them.  This is especially true if you leave in May and have no intent to be back before October.  Having all those items properly secured can save you thousands of dollars in damage. 

We’ll be saying a little prayer for our friends on the Carolina coast this week, as it appears they will be hit with a major storm event. Friends I’ve spoken to up there are busy securing their homes and belongings, while preparing to move to a safer venue.   

I would be remiss if I didn’t give a big shout out to all those that assisted the island during last year’s event, especially our city staff who performed so well. Also to county and state assets who assisted as well as LCEC and all the utility companies that came to our aide. Thank you so much and God bless you all, especially those that gave so much during the storm and the recovery efforts during our time of need. 

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