MANATEE — The last time a major hurricane threatened the coast of Manatee County even remotely was in 2005.
Hurricane Wilma made landfall on Oct. 24 on the Florida Gulf Coast as a Category 3 storm near Cape Romano, south of Marco Island in Collier County.
Just as with the previous three storms that season, including the Category 3 Hurricane Katrina that devastated New Orleans, county residents and emergency management personnel watched the progress of the storms as they tracked through the Gulf of Mexico.
They worried that any one of them could make an unpredictable beeline for our barrier islands, just as Hurricane Charley, still fresh in our memories, did in Port Charlotte.
But it’s been five years of more or less quiet hurricane seasons and people tend to become complacent about being prepared, specially since few people remember when one of the devastating storms made a direct hit.
The last hurricane to make landfall directly in Manatee County was in 1921, when storm surges of more than 20 feet washed over the barrier islands and destroyed the village of Cortez.
This short-term memory phenomenon has county emergency management officials working hard to convince residents not to let their guard down and to prepare for the worse.
“At the beginning of every hurricane season, we fear people get a little complacent,” said Capt. Larry Leinhauser, spokesman for Manatee County Emergency Management Services, “but now is the time to put up supplies, get a plan and be ready.”
Another problem with people not preparing for the hurricane season is that many are new to the area and are not familiar with the wrath of a major storm.
Dennis Feltgen, spokesman for the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said, “It’s been our observation that it is not a complacency issue.
“The problem is that one in six people who live along the coastline have not experienced a hurricane,” Feltgen said. “It’s more of a deniability fact.”
He said many people feel a hurricane will not hit their area, that it happens elsewhere.
“Not a single piece of real estate along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts have been spared by a hurricane,” Feltgen said.
Some parts along the United States coastline are not just a couple of years removed from experiencing a hurricane, but a generation, he said.
“Our concern is that so many people don’t have a hurricane plan going into the season,” Feltgen said.
Leinhauser said people not only should prepare for evacuation if a hurricane threatens a direct hit, but also for the effects of tropical storms.
“Gabrielle was pretty devastating,” he said, recalling the path of destruction left by the Sept. 14, 2001, tropical storm.
The area was whipped by 70 mph winds, which left behind flooded streets, downed trees and power lines, and thousands of residents without electricity.
“A lot of the damage was from trees coming down due to the drought and their shallow root system,” said Steve Simpson, operations chief at the Manatee County Emergency Operations Center.
Feltgen also said people should prepare for evacuation if it becomes necessary, instead of waiting until the last minute.
“Decide where you will go and what you plan to take beforehand,” Feltgen said. “If you don’t, you may not make the right decisions during the storm.”
He said it is important to remember that a hurricane or tropical storm does not have to make a direct hit to cause extensive damage.
“The center of Ike (in 2008) made landfall in Galveston,” Feltgen said, but 400-500 miles away, most of the Florida Panhandle was affected.