It’s been over a decade since a hurricane has struck Florida directly. There have been Tropical Storms, but no hurricanes since Wilma in late October 2005. While this is excellent news, it leads to concern amongst those charged with preparing for hurricanes in our state, including our area of Southwest Florida.
Hurricane preparation at the federal, state, county and municipal levels is a year-round effort. As a result the plans in place now are so much more detailed and carefully thought out than they were when last our state was pummeled by multiple hurricanes during 2004-2005. For all those carefully considered plans to have the desired effect of keeping residents and visitors safe before, during and after a storm, they need the full participation of those residents and visitors.
From the state level all the way down to our local island level, public safety officials are concerned about ‘hurricane amnesia.’ It’s been so long since a storm has hit Florida, they fear that people have stopped preparing for a storm, and that will result in loss of life and property.
Another concern is the number of newcomers to our state that have never experienced a hurricane. More than 2 million new residents have joined the ranks of Floridians since Wilma came ashore.
In addition to newcomers, jaded long time residents concern emergency planners – the ones who feel they’ve been through the worst, they’ll just stay and party through the next hurricane.
Hurricane Charley hit Captiva on August 13, 2004 with 150 mph winds. On Fort Myers Beach, the winds peaked at about 100 mph and the storm surge and high tide combined to push about 9 feet of water ashore. While that glancing blow was enough to do a lot of damage, especially on the northern half of the island, it was far from what Category 5 storm winds (157mph+) and surge could do.
Area emergency operations planners all repeat the same refrain whether you’ve been a Floridian for 50 years or 5 weeks: Be prepared.
What can Islanders expect when a hurricane approaches? We met this week with both the Town of Fort Myers Beach Senior Planner Megan Will and the Fort Myers Beach Fire Control Division Chief for EMS Randy Kraus to talk about local planning.
Megan Will serves as the Town’s representative to the Lee County Emergency Operations Center and is working to update the Town’s Emergency Operations Plan. Last updated in 2006, she’s working with Town Council on the project. Some work was done on the plan in 2014-2015 with Council Member Rexann Hosafros leading the effort, but the plan changes were never adopted.
“The Emergency Operations Plan outlines what happens in an emergency on the beach, how the Town proceeds, how to declare a state of emergency and how to coordinate with the state and county,” Will said.
Just last month, representatives for the Town, Fort Myers Beach Fire District and Lee County Sheriff’s Office sat down to coordinate emergency response.
Division Chief Kraus is working with the county and the town on storm preparedness and response plans.
“Storm preparation begins now,” he said. “Every person and business on the island should have a disaster plan and practice it. If you wait until a storm is on its way, you’re too late.”
What To Do Now
For tips on how to create your family or business plan, visit LeeEOC.com. They also have a list items to create your own emergency kit. Pack it now, so you have one less thing to worry about in a storm.
If someone in your family has special medical needs, be sure to complete a Special Needs application now. A Special Needs Shelter is available for those with medical needs that require electricity, such as oxygen dependence, dialysis, ventilators, etc. You must register for Special Needs each year and arrange for a caregiver to accompany you. Fill out an application now because once the 5-day cone includes our area, applications are no longer processed.
Pets-if you have them, it’s important that you plan what to do if you must leave your home. With only one designated pet-friendly shelter at South Fort Myers High School, pet owners need to arrange to go to a family or friend’s home or a pet-friendly hotel. Have a crate to keep them safe. Lives are lost in storms due to lack of pet planning and refusal to leave pets, so make plans now on where to go with them.
Boats-know how to secure your boat in a storm. It’s more than just throwing on a few more lines. And never ride out a storm in your boat.
Gas tanks-if you have any kind of gas tank at your business or residence, make sure it’s been hydro-tested and secured. Your gas company can do the testing for you. If you wait until the storm is on its way, it’s too late, do it now.
Every island resident and business should have Re-Entry Pass. Applications can be downloaded from the Town’s website www.fortmyersbeachfl.gov or picked up at Town Hall. Passes are free, but require proof that you live here or own a business here. The website provides a list of required documents.
While you’re on the Town’s website, sign up for the Town’s Emergency Notification system. You can sign up for notifications related to your home or work address.
Pick up your phone and download a few critical apps that you’ll be happy to have someday. LeeEvac, while not ready for another couple weeks, is a free app that provides evacuation zone info and provides evacuation notices. The Code Red app is geo-aware, meaning it knows where you are and will send you emergency notices for your current location.
Most community plans warn residents to Know Your Zone! Fort Myers Beach residents don’t have to worry about figuring that out. If you live on the island or your zip code is 33931, you are in Evacuation Zone A. Most at risk and first to leave if a storm approaches. Zone A stretches all the way over to U.S. 41.
The Lee County Emergency Operations Center also offers updates on their Facebook page, Twitter account (@LeeEOC for only emergency information or @LCEMFL for emergency and general information). You can also sign up for text alerts at LeeEOC.com Plan now to connect with reliable emergency information.
If you are a business, make sure your employees know how to contact you in an emergency. Have a plan on how to close up and leave.
Kraus emphasized how important businesses are to first responders.
“Small businesses really help first responders. They help the recovery effort, so we really need them to have an extensive emergency plan.”
Before the Storm
Kraus and Will walked us through the process of what actually happens when a hurricane cone of uncertainty includes Fort Myers Beach. Long before the cone reaches us, local public safety are watching potential threats carefully and preparing their staff and equipment.
At your house, this is a good time to pull out all those insurance policies and get them in a plastic zip bag, along with any other critical records you many need post storm and can’t afford to lose. Pull your phone or camera out and take photos of your home, inside and out. Fill your car with gas. Get cash from the bank or ATM.
Secure loose items, bring in trash and recycling cans, lawn and lanai furniture. Anything that could become a missile in high winds should be secured.
Gather your emergency kit items in one place. Practice your emergency plan.
In the Cone
Once our area is in the 5-day cone, it’s time to act. If an evacuation order is issued, be one of the first to leave, advise local officials. Especially if you have pets. The pet-friendly shelter is a first come-first serve and there is only one pet-friendly shelter. Likewise with pet-friendly hotels, they’ll fill up first.
Both Will and Kraus want Islanders to know that shelters are a last resort. They are not hotels. They can be crowded and noisy. You must bring your own supplies to the shelter. If you have to rely upon a shelter, make sure you know which ones have been opened. Not all shelters are opened for every storm.
The Fire District begins implementing their plans, calling in staff, moving equipment and securing their own stations. Likewise the Town is busy securing their property and preparing to evacuate.
And then we all wait.
In the Storm
Let’s say the storm heads directly for us and a Mandatory Evacuation order is issued.
No one is going to come to your home or business and force you to evacuate. You can stay if you want. But if you do, both Town and Public Safety officials want you to know that once sustained winds hit 40mph, all Public Safety shuts down. Fire, Police, Ambulance.
Kraus points out that even after the storm, any calls for help that came in during the storm will be prioritized and help sent when possible. The bottom line message is if a Mandatory Evacuation order is issued and the winds top 40 mph and you did not leave, you are on your own. They cannot help you. Just the facts of how evacuation rules work.
All fire district equipment, ambulances and staff will be removed from the island during a mandatory evacuation, with the last leaving when the winds hit 40mph.
Both the Town and the Fire District will head to the Lee County Emergency Operations Center or EOC. From there the county coordinates all emergency storm responses.
After the Storm
Once the storm has passed, both Town, LCSO, and Fire District hope to set up operations at Fire Station 32 on San Carlos Blvd, to offer Town residents a “one-stop shop” in the immediate post storm period.
Kraus walked us through how the Town and District would react post storm.
“The first thing we do is a safety survey for EMS (Emergency Medical Service). We would take a crew and drive onto the island to do a ‘windshield assessment’ using a software program that allows their findings to be transmitted directly to the EOC. They’d likely do a pass down Estero Blvd first to see if they can return emergency equipment and personnel to Station 31 (Donora) and 33 (Lenell Rd). Then they’d look at side streets, transmitting info back to the EOC.
Their focus on this first pass through town is on safety — downed power lines, flooding, sewer spills, etc.
“Our goal is to have everything safe and secure and then bring residents back,” said Will.
The Town will work with the LCSO and Fire District. Their information goes to the Town Manager who shares it with Town Council.
Once the island is declared safe and the LCSO has released the road, residents will be able to return to secure their property. This is when residents will really want their re-entry passes and Code Red app.
Kraus told us that their emergency plans include two Points of Distribution or PODS on the Island for post storm supplies. PODS will be located at Santini Marina Plaza and somewhere downtown near the bridge and will have supplies of ice and water. But he warns it may be a day or two before they are set up, depending on where help is coming from.
Post storm, he also warns of the dangers of driving through flooded streets. There could be a live wire in that water or a wash out-there’s no way to know.
Will said that residents will be able to secure their property, tarping and boarding up and making repairs for safety. She said those kind of home repairs qualify for ‘after the fact’ permitting so residents don’t need to worry right away about permits when securing their homes.
When asked if they have any message for Islanders about emergency management, both Megan Will, with the Town of Fort Myers Beach and Division Chief Randy Kraus with the FMB Fire District urge planning.
“Be prepared. Have a plan. Know where you and your pets will go,” said Will. “Know how to secure your property and how to use your shutters.”
“Practice your plan,” advises Kraus. “There are many elderly on the island and they and their kids should know what their plan is.
“Plan for the plan on top of the plan. In case that fails, have a plan and if you don’t practice it, it’s useless.”
The Lee County All Hazards Guide is available at Town Hall, Fire District Administration Building on Voorhis, Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce and the Island Sand Paper office.