Hurricane Irma may have spared Manatee the worst, but she left behind one big mess

Drone captures aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Manatee County

Drone footage captures Hurricane Irma's path of destruction Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2017 in Manatee County, Fla. Irma was one of the strongest storms in history.
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Drone footage captures Hurricane Irma's path of destruction Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2017 in Manatee County, Fla. Irma was one of the strongest storms in history.

If you don’t have power, you shouldn’t flush your toilet.

With more than 69,000 Manatee County customers still without electricity as of 8 p.m. Tuesday following Hurricane Irma’s departure, power companies have assured the public they’re working tirelessly to get homes and businesses back online.

Even so, Florida Power & Light expects that its entire coverage area on the west coast, from Manatee to Monroe counties, will be “essentially restored” by Sept. 22, according to vice president and chief communications officer Rob Gould. As of Tuesday, more than 20,000 employees had been deployed to help bring back power.

The lack of electricity is affecting wastewater pumps in those areas. Residents there should avoid using the toilet, taking a shower, doing laundry or running the dishwasher, according to a press release from the Manatee County Government.

“Wastewater has nowhere to go and can back up inside the home until power is restored,” the release said.

A boil water notice is still in effect for Anna Maria Islanders.

All Hurricane Irma shelters but one special needs shelter have emptied and closed, as school district staff clean up after more than 20,000 evacuees took shelter from Irma. Those who are oxygen- and electricity-dependent were slowly but surely filing out from Nolan Middle School on Tuesday.

According to Carrie Harter, director of disease control for the Florida Department of Health in Manatee, county officials are still figuring out if there are any special needs evacuees affected by the power outages, and if they would need further shelter. The county is also making sure they have electricity at their residences before letting them leave.

The county is encouraging residents to file claims with their insurance providers or to register with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, for federal disaster assistance for uninsured or underinsured damages from Irma.

According to FEMA, eligible damages must have happened during Irma, starting on Sept. 4.

Some programs include unemployment for up to 26 weeks for those who lost their jobs from Irma, loans of up to $500,000 for farmers who lost property, and grants for repairs that won’t be covered by insurance.

Despite causing such widespread damage, Irma was blamed for relatively few fatalities on the U.S. mainland, after killing at least 36 people on its rampage through the eastern Caribbean last week.

There have been seven storm-related deaths in Florida, four in South Carolina and two in Georgia, according to The Associated Press, but officials have questioned whether some of those fatalities can be directly attributed to Irma.

Surveying damage

As county crews continue to survey the damage, residents can report issues at the non-emergency Citizens Information Center at 941-749-3547.

“The traffic light situation is getting better ... the main roads are fairly covered,” Manatee County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Dave Bristow said.

The biggest traffic issue from power outages the sheriff’s office has dealt with has been at the intersection of the I-75 ramps and U.S. 301. Elsewhere, most residents are adhering well by treating those intersections like a four-way stop.

“We at the sheriff’s office are very proud of how people have conducted themselves,” Bristow said. “We are very fortunate that everyone acted like they should.”

The only confirmed report of any looting was a robbery Monday at a 7-Eleven, 2011 44th Ave. W, Bradenton, Bristow said.

As of Tuesday, the sheriff’s office had not yet sent out any of their emergency response teams to other areas of Florida more severely impacted by Hurricane Irma. The possibility is being discussed.

“We want to make sure everything here is taken care of and our people get some rest beforehand,” Bristow said. “Once you go somewhere, it’s pretty much non-stop.”

In the city of Bradenton, police officers have been focusing on patrolling neighborhoods that don’t have power, according to Assistant Chief Josh Cramer, and making sure people know to treat any traffic light that’s not working as a four-way stop.

Intermittently along Manatee Avenue from 14th Street West and westward, and most of the traffic lights on 14th Street West from 6th Avenue West were still out Tuesday afternoon.

“We don’t have the resources to put an officer at every intersection because we are trying to help people recover and get safely into their homes and maintain peace and order,” Cramer said.

A drive up and down 14th Street West, however, did show several patrol officers spread out between some of those intersections.

‘Permanently changed’

The loss of many trees has changed the landscape.

“We are very fortunate that the worst of the storm stayed out east, but some of the neighborhoods have changed permanently,” Cramer said.

In Palmetto, Police Chief Scott Tyler said he truly agreed with the word on the street, “We dodged a bullet.”

“We had some structural damage,” Tyler said.

The total number of homes and buildings with damage is still not known, he said, but most of the damage was to mobile or manufactured homes. He was very grateful that there were no reported deaths or injuries in Palmetto related to Hurricane Irma.

“Much of the city has gotten power back. All intersections are back up as of yesterday afternoon,” Tyler said Tuesday. “Aside from the debris, we are back up and running.”

But he does recognize that everyone is still under stress.

“So we have been encouraging people to be patient and kind to each other,” Tyler said.

The Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office sounded off a warning about unlicensed contractors trying to scam people after Irma. Sheriff Tom Knight said residents should verify the authenticity of the contractor before work is done.

“Unfortunately, service providers might target the elderly or other vulnerable people who aren’t knowledgeable of repair work and associated costs,” Knight said.

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan toured the damage done by Hurricane Irma on Tuesday. Provided photo U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, toured damage in Manatee and Sarasota counties by helicopter Tuesday, noting the need for beach renourishment on Anna Maria Island and the swift reopening of businesses so people could get back to work.

“We’re going to have to step forward and do more,” he said.

Hannah Morse: 941-745-7055, @mannahhorse

Jessica De Leon: 941-745-7049, @JDeLeon1012

Herald Washington Bureau reporters Evan Halper and Laura King contributed to this story.

More coverage

Manatee County breathes sigh of relief as cleanup begins, 3A

Manatee firefighters deployed to Collier County to help relief efforts, 3A

Still more than one-third of Manatee residents without power, 3A

Irma’s cost to Manatee schools could approach $1 million, 3A

EPA relaxes pollution rules to help restore electricity, 4A

Humane Society in need after blackout; Animal Services flooded with strays, 5A

Photos show damage left behind by Hurricane Irma, 7A

Florida, USF and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will all return to football field this weekend, 1B

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