The big storms that hit Manatee this year were all different: a tropical storm that sprang up within hours, a no-name flooding event that forced a neighborhood out of their homes, and a hurricane that gave several day’s notice.
“Every storm is different, and there’s no average storm,” said Manatee County Emergency Management Chief Sherilyn Burris
The 2017 hurricane season ends Thursday. Reflecting on her first hurricane season as chief, Burris said a lot of what will change next year will be in educating the public.
The heaven-and-earth response to Hurricane Irma was perhaps because people thought it would be the next Hurricane Harvey, which deluged Texas in up to 40 inches of rain. Even if two storms follow the same path, however, they usually have different outputs, Burris said.
The mass evacuation from South Florida didn’t require southbound lanes to turn north, but it caused major traffic headaches in the days leading up to Sept. 10. Thousands of people filled up 70 percent of Manatee’s shelters, calling to question if new schools going forward should be built as shelters.
“I don’t think more shelters is a blanket solution to a statewide problem,” she said, adding that Florida is rated second best for its building codes behind Virginia. “There are a lot of people that went to hurricane shelters that could have stayed home safely.”
A look back
“We’ve kind of been in a drought before 2016’s Hermine,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Noah. “We’ve had some systems, but nothing very bad since Wilma in 2005. I think those days are over.”
Warmer than normal waters in the Atlantic Ocean, only by 1 or 2 degrees, can be the fuel for more hurricanes. The Atlantic goes through 20- to 30-year periods with colder or warmer than normal water, called multi-decadel oscillation.
“Before 1995, hurricane seasons were only six to eight storms on average,” Noah said. “Now we’re in the teens.”
Tropical Storm Emily formed around 8 a.m. July 31 off shore of Anna Maria Island, dropping about 5 inches of rain and bringing with it winds up to 45 mph, Noah said. The storm lasted eight hours, causing power outages, sporadic flooding and a weak tornado in northwest Bradenton.
Nearly a month later, a no-name storm poured 17 inches of rain in some parts of Manatee and Sarasota counties and devastated neighborhoods in the Whitfield area. Sixty-seven homes had water damage, and two people died as a result of the flooding: a 61-year-old man who was found dead near his wheelchair in a flooded street, and another man who drowned in his car after driving into a canal near the flooded parking lot of Sarasota Kennel Club.
“That’s how most of our flooding fatalities occur in Florida,” Noah said.
A week before Hurricane Irma hit, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency. That set off long lines at home improvement stores for plywood, bottled water droughts at grocery stores and gas stations sucked dry of fuel, not to mention the mass exodus to anywhere that wasn’t Florida. Getting back wasn’t any easier.
It was the second hurricane to last more than three days as a Category 5. The first time that happened was in 1932, Noah said. Irma generated more energy than any other hurricane on record, and more than every storm last year combined.
County officials issued a mandatory evacuation for those who lived in Zone A, near the coast, and nearly 25,000 people took up nearly three-quarters of the space in Manatee’s 25 shelters. Burris said just 5 percent of those evacuees were from out of town.
But Irma hit Manatee County as a Category 1, with winds at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport recorded up to 70 mph; the most rain it created in Manatee was 6.65 inches in Myakka. Most of the rain was out east because the heaviest rain sticks to the right side of the eyewall, in respect to where the storm is headed.
It took 11 days for power to fully be restored throughout Manatee. Fourteen homes or businesses were obliterated — 170 had major damage, 196 had minor damage and 2,061 were affected in some manner.
In Hollywood, 14 people died as a result of being stuck in a sweltering, powerless nursing home after Irma. This triggered the governor to order all Florida nursing homes and assisted living facilities to submit their emergency plans to the state and equip themselves with generators that can keep the power on for 96 hours.
“I really think that a lot of this hurricane season was the weather events that we all hoped would never happen,” Burris said.
Coverage of the storms changed, too, especially with the rise of social media. Burris said she didn’t see the kind of constant news feed in the mid-2000s, when she worked at the Florida Division of Emergency Management, compared to now.
But the power to reach virtually everyone comes with responsibility. Burris and Noah both said the way they got out messages would have to be tweaked in the future.
With respect to weather experts, Noah found that many people thought that if there was a predicted 10- to 15-foot storm surge, it would definitely happen. In reality, that figure is more of a 1 in 10 chance, he said.
“It’s more of a planning tool,” he said. Still, 6.5 million Floridians evacuated, effectively clogging interstates.
Burris is split on whether she thinks Irma changed people’s minds for being prepared for next year’s season. People may be apathetic, rationalizing that a big deal was made over a storm that didn’t really do any damage in our area. Others could be shaken into fully preparing next year by having the mindset like Manatee County Sheriff Rick Wells, when he said, “We dodged a bullet.”
If you don’t live in an evacuation zone and your house is relatively new, it’s most likely not necessary to evacuate, Burris said. But if you live in a zone that has been issued a mandatory evacuation order or if you’re power dependent, going to a shelter or bunking with someone who lives in a safer area may be a better bet. Of course, all of this depends on what local officials are telling the public at the time, as every storm is different.
“I can’t tell you if your house is safe or not. I can’t tell you if you should stay or go,” she said. But there’s one thing to keep in mind: “Make smart decisions and be nice to each other.”
There were more special-needs shelter applications before Irma as well. In the days following the hurricane, commissioners expressed concern that a state report predicted that the Manatee area would have enough shelter space in 2021, although it’s between two regions that had severe deficits. The Board of County Commissioners and the Manatee school board plan to hold a joint workshop in mid-December to discuss hurricane shelters.
Capacity, whether it be for shelters or other resources, is something that should be focused on, she said.
“It’s not about if I had a cot or not, it’s about if I should have evacuated in the first place,” Burris said. “It doesn’t matter if I had more gasoline if I didn’t have anywhere to put it.”
People ask Burns what she does in the six months that hurricanes aren’t threatening our shores.
Preparing for the next one, she says.
2017 has been one of the worst hurricane seasons in memory. Watch at Bradenton.com.