A long, stress-filled weekend was best summed up by Manatee County Sheriff Rick Wells in the emergency management’s final Hurricane Irma briefing with a simple but important message: “We dodged a bullet.”
Fallen trees lined streets, many returned to find structural damage to their homes and businesses, and thousands were still without power on Monday evening, but the damage seen in Manatee County fell far short of what many feared 24 hours before Irma finally bid Cuba goodbye and took aim at the Florida peninsula as a Category 4 storm.
Irma’s landfall near Marco Island, almost 150 miles south-southeast of Bradenton, allowed the powerful storm plenty of time to weaken over land before the worst impacts reached Manatee County. The result was a scary night of howling winds, heavy rain and high anxiety as residents hunkered down in homes, shelters, and hotels.
But on Monday morning, the sun returned, and with it a sigh of relief. Manatee County, despite some cuts and bruises, was still standing as Irma raced away through northern Florida.
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The mandatory curfew that went into effect Sunday at 3 p.m. was lifted by 8:30 a.m. Wells said residents cooperated with the order and there were no issues or arrests. The only reported crime associated to the storm was a convenience store burglary that the sheriff’s office is investigating.
Although power was restored to thousands of homes through Monday, it could take weeks before everyone’s lights are turned backed on. Wells urged caution as residents are out and about as repair work goes on.
Intersections without power were being treated as a four-way stop sign intersection.
“We were very lucky, very fortunate,” Emergency Management Chief Sherilyn Burris said.
More than 62 percent of the state — an estimated 13 million Floridians — remained without power as of 6 p.m. Monday. Of 10.5 million customers statewide, 6.5 million were still out, according to state emergency management officials.
While outages are typically reported in terms of a number of customers, a graphic displayed at the state Emergency Operations Center, as of 6:30 p.m., reported that 13 million individuals were estimated without power, with the worst outages in southwest Florida.
The state had spent about $131 million on recovery and response efforts for Irma, as of Monday evening, according to another slide presented during an evening briefing that reporters were again barred from. By comparison, the total state cost expended for Hurricane Matthew last fall was $268 million.
Damage assessment continues, and FEMA has declared the county as a natural disaster, opening the door for claims to begin.
Throughout Monday, businesses and government offices made plans to reopen. They include:
▪ Manatee County Government and City of Bradenton offices, the Clerk of Circuit Courts office and the Department of Health remain closed Tuesday.
▪ Manatee County Area Transit buses resume normal routes Tuesday. Para-transit will deliver only dialysis patients on Tuesday, and reassess Wednesday.
▪ Port Manatee will reopen Tuesday.
▪ There will be no recycling this week. Trash will be collected on a modified schedule this week as long as your road is passable by the garbage trucks. Residents with Tuesday/Friday collection will have their trash collected on their normal days. Residents with Monday/Thursday collection will have their garbage collected on Wednesday and Thursday this week.
Surveying the damage
Along the marina in Point Pleasant, neighbors Jerry Nordquist, 83, and Judy McCammon, 74, were out Monday morning surveying the damage and shaking off “cabin fever.” They live in the nearby Westminster Tower & Shores where they were able to wait out the hurricane, and had seen downed trees, ripped boat sails and leaf debris.
“We were anxious to see how it looks, and it’s not that bad,” McCammon said.
She and Nordquist were pleased with their decision to shelter in place, despite pleas from Northern friends to escape Bradenton and head north.
“Everyone tried to get us out of here, but we said there was no way out,” she said. “The roads are more dangerous, there’s no gas, and there were no flights. We had a safe place.”
Next up for the day: “We can go empty the wine bottles that we filled with water,” Nordquist said.
Tough road home
While those who stayed put could examine the damage to property, there were almost as many who fled for safety to other parts of Florida, Georgia, Alabama and beyond. For those who left, the anxiety was not knowing what they would find upon their return.
The influx of evacuees started in earnest Monday. Against the advice of state and local leaders, many Floridians took to the road to rush home after Hurricane Irma — creating pockets of congestion on Florida’s interstates and main highways by the afternoon.
By 5 p.m., Interstate 4 westbound out of Orlando was seeing congestion near Lakeland and Plant City into Tampa. Flooding was also reported on I-4 near Disney World.
In North Florida, Interstate 10 eastbound at the interchange with Interstate 75 in Lake City was getting backed up for several miles.
The interchange in Wildwood where the Turnpike merges with I-75 — one of the worst bottlenecks in the state — was also clogging up with southbound crowds.
The Sunshine Skyway Bridge remained closed until about 6 p.m. while the major bridges from Tampa to St. Petersburg, such as the Howard Frankland, were opened earlier Monday afternoon.
Many evacuees were headed to Anna Maria Island, which will contend with a boil water notice due to saltwater intrusion, but Wells said no significant damage was reported from the island.
The bridges to the island were reopened starting at 3 p.m., and steady flow of traffic drove westbound across the Cortez Bridge shortly after. Residents and business owners slowly crept up to buildings, slowing down to inspect for damage before getting out to further investigate.
A few people stopped to check out the Rod and Reel Pier and were thrilled to see it mostly unscathed, at least from what could be seen from the island. One woman, an employee, gleefully shouted that she would have a job Tuesday and started taking photos of the standing building to send to friends. The only visible signs of damage were to awnings, some pipes and the sign lying in pieces.
Some stopped to gawk at the damage to the Anna Maria City Pier. Most were pleasantly surprised to see how well the island had fared through the storm.
By 4 p.m. the beaches were spotted with sightseers, even a windsurfer who braved the crashing waves to play in the strong winds. The major storm surge that many feared had Irma taken a track closer to the West Coast did not materialize.
Three days after Manatee Memorial Hospital announced it was evacuating everyone as Hurricane Irma barreled toward the Gulf Coast, it was officially cleared to reopen at 7 p.m. Monday.
“The hospital is fully operational and our Emergency Care Center will be open for patients of all ages,” hospital spokeswoman Betty Chambliss said in a news release Monday evening.
The hospital is located in Zone A, which was placed under a mandatory evacuation on Friday. Kevin DiLallo, CEO of Manatee Memorial Hospital, said the hospital evacuated all 206 patients to Lakewood Ranch Medical Center. About 10 infants in the neonatal intensive care unit were relocated to All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg and Sarasota Memorial Hospital.
“We would like to thank our leadership, employees and medical staff for staying here at the hospital until the last patient was safely transferred to other facilities in advance of Hurricane Irma’s arrival, for staying at the facility during the hurricane, and for helping to re-open the hospital,” Chambliss said.
The Lakewood Ranch Medical Center remained fully operational throughout the storm.
Officials caution everyone to remain patient in the days ahead as crews work to restore power and get fuel trucks into the county.
Commissioner Robin DiSabatino, a presence at the EOC meetings throughout the weekend, thanked many for their hard work, including the school district for all they did to accommodate 20,000 evacuees.
“We were very fortunate to be spared,” she said.
Mark Young: 941-745-7041, @urbanmark2014
Bradenton Herald reporters Richard Dymond, Mark Young, Sarah Nealeigh, Hannah Morse, Jason Dill and McClatchy DC reporters Kate Irby and Lesley Clark contributed to this report.
Watch scenes of damage in the aftermath after Hurricane Irma and more videos at Bradenton.com.
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