Residents in Manatee County feared the worse from Hurricane Irma as the Category 4 storm made its approach to the west coast of Florida. The entire Tampa Bay area braced for what was expected to be the first direct hit in decades.
Irma was expected to leave Anna Maria Island under water with a forecast of up to 11 feet of storm surge. More than an estimated 110,000 residents were ordered to evacuate from the island, other coastal areas and mobile homes. Water lines to the island were shut off, Manatee Memorial Hospital was evacuated and bridges were closed and locked.
Residents were urged to hunker down on the night of Sept. 9, a Saturday, and to be prepared to shelter in place as officials warned it could take up to 72 hours before first responders would be able to get them in Irma’s wake.
Irma made it’s second landfall in Florida — the first had been in the Keys — on Sept. 10, much more to south than forecasters had predicted. When Irma’s eye came onshore over Marco Island at 3:35 p.m., the storm began making it trek north over land, wobbling at times to the east, sucking in dry air and weakening while cutting a path of destruction up through the Florida peninsula.
About 25,000 people waited inside the 24 hurricane shelters opened at Manatee County public schools. Others waited and watched from their homes, hotels or the homes of family or friends — many traveling hundreds of miles away. Water from Sarasota and Tampa bays was sucked dry, leaving manatees stranded and boats out of the water.
First responders had been ordered off the streets by the time night fell that Sunday, and residents went to bed not knowing what they would wake up to.
But by daybreak Monday morning, news had spread that Manatee County had been spared the brunt of the storm with the center passing to the east over the central part of the state.
More than 127,000 residents were left without power, however, and it would take more than a week for some to get electricity restored. Twelve homes were destroyed, 144 homes suffered major damage and 181 homes suffered minor damage. About 540,000 cubic yards of storm debris was collected by the county.
Being spared the devastation Hurricane Irma brought to other counties in Florida, emergency management officials are trying to learn from the experience because next time Manatee County may not be so lucky.
The biggest lesson learned was identifying the need to better educate Manatee County residents, businesses and tourists especially about evacuation zones, according to Emergency Management Chief Sherilyn Burris.
“Irma created the largest evacuation and sheltering operation in Manatee County’s history,” Burris and other emergency management officials concluded in the county’s After Action Report.
While those residents were instructed to seek safety on higher ground, officials never anticipated that about 25,000 people would take refuge in public shelters.
“Last year was the first time we ever opened all the shelters,” said Sandra Ford, Manatee County School District chief operations officer.
The timing of when evacuation orders are issued is based on behavior studies that ask residents about what they think they would do when faced with various scenarios of storm intensities and evacuation orders. Based on a 2017 study, emergency management officials predicted that 3,800 residents would go to shelters under a mandatory Level A evacuation.
The Harvey effect
But the study didn’t account for the Hurricane Harvey effect.
More than two weeks before Irma made landfall in Florida, Harvey made landfall in Texas becoming the first major hurricane to strike the United States since the 2005 season.
“So people saw Hurricane Harvey and what Hurricane Harvey was doing to Texas and then they changed their mind on what they thought they would do,” Burris said. “So a telephone survey is one thing, but watching it happen on live TV is different. It’s pretty terrifying. So people made different decisions that we thought they would make, five times as many people in our shelters.”
One of the biggest changes since the 2005: the role of social media.
For the first-time Americans watched the destruction in real-time as meteorologists, journalists and storm chasers live-streamed and posted on social media as Harvey unleashed catastrophic damage and flooding on Houston and other parts of the Texas Gulf Coast.
On the same weekend, Manatee County was deluged with record-setting rainfall as a low pressure system stalled over the area flooding out homes, roads and cars. Fire crews even had to rescue residents out of the Central Lake subdivision, on the southwest intersection of Tuttle Avenue and 63rd Avenue East.
The county was already saturated, with some areas having seen about two feet of water, and there was wide-spread fear about the possibility of what rain and the storm surge from Irma could do. They had already seen what Harvey did.
Burris feels the county could have done better on helping the public make better decisions. Many didn’t know their evacuation zones, which was the start of bad decision-making. Of those who did evacuate, many didn’t consider the zone of where they were evacuating to. For example, some evacuated to hotels near the waterfront in downtown Sarasota.
Many who spent days in shelters, probably didn’t need to be there but it was a result of bad decision-making and the fear caused by Harvey, according to Burris.
Shelters not always best option
“It’s not the place you want to be unless that’s your only place to find safety,” she said. “The school is never going to meet everyone’s needs. A lot of people weren’t prepared for the lack of comfort and the lack of privacy in the schools.”
As a result, the county is focusing on better communication, education and awareness. Burris stresses this reminder: Run from water, which means evacuate and hide from wind, which means to take shelter.
“I hope we find better alternatives than a government shelter. Go stay with family and friends,” Burris said. “Don’t go far, but stay with family and friends. Or go stay at one of these hotels outside the evacuation areas.”
Since last year, the demand for hurricane preparedness presentations giving by emergency management staff to local home owner’s associations, businesses or other groups has doubled. Anyone interested in setting up a presentation can contact Candace Kelly at 941-749-3500 ext. 1667 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
An estimated 6.5 million Floridians evacuated out of the state ahead of Irma, clogging the major northbound routes: Interstates 75 and 95. Many struggled to find gas along the way, as gas stations could not keep up with demand.
In Manatee County, like elsewhere, many made the decision to evacuate at the last minute, which is problematic for law enforcement, according to Sheriff Rick Wells. That decision meant officers and other first responders couldn’t leave those areas until the last minute.
“The biggest challenge was right after the storm, getting word to people that it was not safe to come out,” Wells said.
Mass power outages left many traffic intersections not working and created a traffic nightmare, especially because people took to the streets as law enforcement was still working with cleanup crews to access and clear the roads.
“It takes us a while to get everyone in place,” Wells said. “It’s not the best part of the job, but it’s something we know is going to happen after a storm.”
Wells’ deputies and officers from all the county’s police departments worked 12-hour shifts and didn’t take a day off for more than a week, as a result of Irma.
The unprecedented opening of every county shelter also provided the school district with a learning opportunity. The biggest lesson: the ideal staff size needed to keep many shelters open for an extended period of time, according to Ford. Had the aftermath here been worse, the district would have needed enough staff to rotate them to keep the shelters open.
Since the district never anticipated needing to open every shelter, each of the designated schools was not as prepared as they should have been. Every school now has a “shelter box” with the necessary supplies. Staff have also received additional training at the school level and district-level.
The last-minute decision to turn nearly every shelter into pet-friendly shelters taught important lessons as well. At one school, families had already been placed in what would have been the ideal area for pets by the time that decision was made, Ford explained, forcing pets to be placed in the media center. Not only was that not the ideal room, the media center specialist at that school also has severe pet allergies, which later made a deep-cleaning necessary. Every shelter also now has a tarp so it can set-up pet areas.
Another factor that Burris believes may have led people to evacuate unnecessarily was because they didn’t have impact-resistant windows and doors, or shutters or other ways to cover and protect them. In the days leading up to Irma, local hardware stories could not keep up with the last minute demand for plywood.
Demand for shutters spikes
Local businesses that sell impact-resistant windows and doors as well as shutters were inundated with calls. But because those products are all custom made, there just is not enough time once a storm has already formed, something businesses were forced to explain repeatedly.
In the wake of Irma, however, demand went through the roof.
“We were swamped for about six to eight months after that, just swamped,” said Carl Huzel, an employee at Bradenton Window & Allied Products, 1217 29th Ave. W., Bradenton.
Business seem to let up a bit after seasonal residents had left, but there was still a significant increase as summer got underway.
“A lot of it was estimates for hurricane, replacements for impact windows and doing service on products that got damaged during Irma,” Huzel said.
While the demand for impact-resistant windows and doors seem to be on the rise, cost still makes products like shutters more popular.
Over and over, new customers come into Bradenton Window & Allied Products with similar stories about how they evacuated ahead of Irma because their windows and doors weren’t protected and they didn’t feel safe. It’s something he can related to himself, he added, since it was the very reason he and his wife evacuated to stay with nearby family.
“People got so complacent” and now they want to be prepared for the next big storm, Huzel said. “I hope the next one won’t be in my lifetime.”