Hurricane Irma may have jogged to the east as it passed over Manatee County last weekend, but the storm did not leave the county untouched.
What the storm left behind was darkness.
In the days ahead, the dark would prove to be one of the biggest challenges for law enforcement as their focus to serve and protect was made more difficult by the fears of the unknown that darkness caused by power outages brought.
The Bradenton Police Department was flooded with calls for suspicious persons and vehicles when patrol officer Dahlia Santana came on duty for her shift Tuesday night. She, like most of her colleagues who gave up their weekend, was overdue for a day off when Hurricane Irma made its approach.
Most of the calls for suspicious persons, she said however, were neighbors calling on their own neighbors who were trying to take their boards down or clean up. As a result and to deter burglaries, detectives were assigned to respond to and patrol those dark neighborhoods.
After responding to three disturbance calls that were closed out without incident, Santana began to patrol her regularly assigned area. Officers were documenting the specific blocks they were monitoring and writing quick reports on any suspicious encounters during that patrol, she explained.
“In case something happens, we can link the person with the time and place,” Santana said.
The blackouts were not exclusive to homes and businesses in Irma’s aftermath, however. More than half of the county’s traffic lights were left not working, and on Tuesday that included most of Bradenton’s busy 14th Street West.
But as Santana as waiting at one of the many intersections without operative traffic signals, the woman in front of her failed to stop and she pulled her over. Sgt. John Negron pulled up as the officer approached the car and stood behind her and waved at the young girl in the car with her mother.
The mother was given a warning and reminded to treat the darkened intersections as a four-way stop — or she could cause a traffic crash.
Santana continues her patrol, and as she turns down one block, a woman on the side of the road gets her attention.
“Something’s on fire,” she says, pointing down the road.
“I’ll check it out,” Santana says and drives down the block as she can see the smoke. She parks the police car, walks up to the home and knocks on the door.
A couple moments later, she was heard on her radio.
“I made contact with the home owner. They are burning their trash,” she tells dispatch.
As night settled, darkness fell on the city.
Santana was dispatched to the 1100 block of Ballard Park to a report of a shot being fired. The 911 caller asked to remain anonymous, the dispatcher told her.
Another officer arrived first and came on the radio less than a moment later reporting that he was on scene and a neighbor said he had also heard what sounded like a shot but then realized it must have been a transformer that blew because immediately after the noise, the whole block went dark.
Santana cleared the call and moments later was dispatched to the 1200 block of 26th Street West after a 911 caller reported seeing suspicious persons “looking into houses.” She and other officers arrived in the area quickly. Each other’s patrol car as the only light they can see as they canvased the surrounding area but found nothing or no one suspicious.
Riding out Irma
Like many members of law enforcement, Santana rode out Hurricane Irma at a shelter at a public school.
“I was originally on the road,” Santana said. “But when they pulled us off the road, we had to go to our assigned shelter.”
For her, that was Manatee High School, where she patrolled the school all night until it was safe to go out on the road again.
“We had several people get out, and we had to explain that they couldn’t leave because it wasn’t safe,” Santana said.
The shelter kept evacuees updated on the storm’s status, she added.
By 5 a.m. Monday, she was back on the road with other officers, responding to 911 calls that had been placed on standby until it was safe for police to come out again.
“Some were” upset about the delay,” Santana said, while “some understood.”
Looking forward, Santana said she and many other law enforcement officers in Manatee County know they may be deployed to assist other areas of the state harder hit by Irma. Recently having joined the emergency response team, however, it would be her first deployment. But first the department wants them around as the city regains power, traffic lights and cleans up the mess left behind by the storm.
Leading from the dark
The storm had not unleashed its final band of storms before members of the upper ranks of the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office took to the dark streets.
By 2:30 a.m., when winds had dropped below tropical-force strength, the sheriff’s office first deployed its brass, including majors and captains. Among them was Capt. Rick Gerken, who began the process of clearing roads and identifying any major obstructions north of the Manatee River.
Gerken traveled up and down U.S. 41 to the county line and U.S. 19 to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge toll plaza, calling out the many dark intersections to dispatch and pulling over for several trees. Each time, Gerken would get out and move as much of the large debris and at times entire trees out of the roadway.
Meanwhile, deputies since just before 4 a.m. had begun responding to 911 calls that had that were on standby and in order of their priority.
Most calls over the police radio were for downed trees, fallen branches, downed power lines, darkened traffic lights and toppled signs. Gerken would also stop and turn on his spotlights and emergency lights as he moved signs and branches moved out of the way.
Among the duties of those first out on the road was clearing the bridges. In order to do that, they had to be the first to cross the bridge in the dark of Irma’s aftermath — not knowing what may lay ahead, Gerken said. For him, that included being the first to cross and clear the newly constructed Fort Hamer Bridge.
Rain began to pelt the windshield, and a quick check of the weather radar on his laptop confirmed another of the storm’s outer rain bands was moving in, delaying the release of the first of the response teams Monday morning.
As the morning wore on, Gerken made it to the southern portion of the country. The drive down U.S. 41 to the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport was done in darkness south of 53rd Avenue East. At the airport, there was some good news: The hangar housing the sheriff’s office helicopter appeared intact.
As day broke, Gerken made his way to the Centre Lakes neighborhood, which is in his district, to check on how it withstood Irma after flooding from heavy rains the previous week had seeped into every home. A flooded out field worried him, but his concerns were quickly quashed as he drove through the neighborhood without seeing any signs of flooding.