A half-year has passed since the atmosphere in Manatee County was heavy with premonition. A hurricane named Irma was coming, but we didn’t know where it would hit.
Rain fell on and off that Sunday. Grey clouds slathered the sky, sometimes blowing faster than the line of cars driving to escape the storm. As night fell, the wind grew stronger.
But the sun shined on a muggy Monday morning. Residents picked up the pieces, many without power. The Waffle Houses remained, unscathed.
For Manatee, Hurricane Irma was a “good test run,” says the county’s financial management director Jan Brewer. “We came close enough to feel the real effects. I think it was really good for us.”
The storm that hit overnight on Sept. 10 seems like a lifetime ago, but county officials are using lessons learned to prepare for the next season that starts in fewer than three months.
The county is working to submit reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency totaling $23,245,076.72, which Brewer expects a good portion of the funds to return by September, one year since Irma. The largest cost to the county was debris clearance at $12,095,298, followed by parks and recreational facilities at $7,300,297, which includes beach erosion.
FEMA provided Manatee County homeowners and renters who filed claims after Irma damaged their primary residence with $10.1 million in grants, according to FEMA Florida spokesman John Mills. This doesn’t include the 8,207 households that filed claims with private insurance agencies as of Feb. 9, with 3,122 of them closed without payment, as recorded by the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation.
The Small Business Administration also approved $7.9 million in disaster loans for Manatee homeowners and renters, and $1.7 million in loans for businesses.
Temporary rent payments by FEMA were sought by 4,300 households, and 430 homes received money for repairs. In the time after Irma, 335 households in the county signed up for FEMA’s temporary hotel sheltering program. As the six-month anniversary comes and goes, eight households, many who were renters before the storm hit, Mills said, are still participating. The program ended March 10.
“Everyone who is still in a hotel is facing recovery challenges. We’re mindful of those,” Mills said.
For the 14 homes and businesses that were destroyed, “It’s still a bad day for those folks,” said county emergency management chief Sherilyn Burris.
“It’s such a different experience we had in Manatee County,” she said, comparing the experience to Collier County and the Keys. “We were able to get our power back up because we had a little less damage.”
It took 11 days to fully restore power and 99 days to clean up all of the debris in Manatee. Because of the size of the storm and how quickly the county was able to return to normal, it’s easier to “forget about the situation faster.”
“We have hurricane season half the year,” Burris said. June through November. Basically, every other day.
Burris said the county was gearing up for its annual hurricane exercise, which allows officials to practice what they would do during a strong storm with a direct hit. The public safety department is also looking at how it staffs shelters and provides messages about storm surge and emergency preparation.
“This year, we’re doing a bigger exercise. We’re trying to push people a little harder.”
Preparing for the worst, praying for the best
Some of the major themes of this past hurricane season were shelter spaces, debris and flooding from the August no-name storm.
The latest Statewide Emergency Shelter Plan released in January suggests that Manatee County lacks more than 8,300 shelter spaces. The school district uses these reports as guidance for whether future schools they build need to be constructed as shelters or not, which come at a price.
“Our feeling is that the report is not accurate and is extremely flawed,” said Ron Ciranna, the School District of Manatee County’s deputy superintendent of business services and operations.
The school district says the report missed eight of its schools that are shelters, which would put the entire six-county Tampa Bay region back in the positive with an additional 14,876 spaces. They haven’t had a response from the state yet, Ciranna said.
Like the county, the school district is also working on a new shelter plan and training for principals, district spokesman Mike Barber said. And the district is planning for its new elementary school in north Manatee County to become a shelter. The school will add 2,000 spaces to the county’s roster of shelter spaces, and it costs an additional $4 million to implement.
Ciranna said Hurricane Irma had nothing to do with decision to make this school into a shelter, although county commissioners were concerned that the proposed high school they heard about before Irma hit would not become a shelter. Rather, the district looked at the balance of the need when looking to the future.
“As long as we’re building three schools ... we thought at this point the elementary school would be a good shelter to have,” Ciranna said.
The county’s utilities department was an easy target for anyone who had debris on their lawns for months.
“We’re glad it’s over and we hope to not have to experience it again,” said Amy Pilson, the department’s public affairs liaison.
The department will be starting an education campaign next month to teach residents to trim trees before the season starts. If residents wait too long and a hurricane is imminent, trucks may not be able to venture into high winds and the debris could become projectiles.
Partnering with smaller municipalities will also be a priority, Pilson said, to share how they handled a big storm and make sure they have contracts in place to guarantee storm cleanup.
The psychology behind evacuating is the subject of a study being conducted by the Florida Division of Emergency Management. Burris said many people saw Hurricane Harvey drench Texas and expected Irma to do the same.
“We had big trouble from our August rainfall event. We can’t evacuate out of the way of rain,” she said.
Despite Irma being more of a wind event, 87 flood insurance claims were filed after Hurricane Irma, FEMA spokesman Mills said, which doesn’t include those affected by the late August rain event.
“If you live in Florida, you need flood insurance,” Mills said.
There are two major ways residents can prepare their homes ahead of the hurricane season: flood insurance and hardening.
“There does not have to be a major disaster declaration for people to file a flood insurance claim,” Mills added.
After purchasing flood insurance, information for which can be found on floodsmart.gov, it takes 30 days for it to go into effect.
Manatee County commissioners also recently approved agreements with two Property Assessed Clean Energy, or PACE, providers: Renew Financial Group and Renovate America. The county has had an agreement with Florida PACE since June.
These agreements, which follow suit of Hillsborough County, allow the companies to provid a non-ad valorem assessment for certain homeowners to make improvements to their homes. The homeowners pay off the loan through their property tax.
“If you leave that home and move somewhere else, it stays with the home,” Brewer said.
While improvements like energy efficiency and renewable energy are clear in the program’s name, homeowners can also use the program for upgrades that would improve resiliency in hurricanes.
“For the counties in the state, it’s a good program because people who would normally not harden their homes, it makes them more efficient,” she said.
After Irma and looking ahead, Brewer said that the storm really made the county look at how it reacted to disaster. It wasn’t like Charley in 2004, but she said it was the best way to prepare, though she, like many others, is glad it’s in the past.
“I really pray we never see anything like it again,” Brewer said.