Any good Boy Scout can tell you the organization’s motto: “Be Prepared!” Now is the time for all Southwest Floridians to become Good Scouts and Be Prepared for the 2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season that began on June 1 and continues through November 30.
Do not wait until a hurricane is on the immediate horizon before making preparations, as now is the time to act. Gather supplies, establish your evacuation plan, and take steps to secure your property, as preventative measures are the best possible preparations. Don’t be one of those standing in the hot sun for hours after a hurricane, hoping for food or water, or relying on the generosity of your neighbors who took planning seriously.
“There is no reason why, in this day and age, anyone should get hurt, much less die, in a hurricane,” emphasizes Jim Bjostad, Chief of Emergency Management for the Lee County Division of Public Safety. “Southwest Floridians live in one of the safest parts of the nation for natural disasters. In earthquake areas, you receive no warning. In Tornado Alley, you are lucky if you get 3 to 5 minutes. We provide 3 to 5 days advance notice for a hurricane. With that much lead time, everyone should be ready.”
Respect The Wind, Fear The Surge!
Jim sums up hurricane preparedness in one phrase: “’Respect the wind, fear the surge!’ You cannot outrun the storm surge – if you are in a flood level and we get a significant surge, you drown. If you know only one thing, it is your home’s location in the surge zones.” Southwest Florida has 5 designated ones, with A the most prone, up to E or the least. The closer you are to the right-front quadrant and the more intense the storm, the larger the evacuation area, with the strongest winds usually at the eyewall’s right side. This year weather alerts will include surge warnings in addition to hurricane advisories and related information on possible tornadoes and inland flooding.
Hurricane Preparedness Kits need enough water and non-perishable foods per person for 3 to 5 days, with additional water for food preparation and sanitation, and as many bags of ice as possible. Partially fill plastic one-liter containers with water and place them in the freezer. They will become ice without cracking, if the power goes out they help keep the freezer cool, and when they melt, you have drinking water. Have a portable battery-operated radio, flashlights, and batteries; at least a 7-day supply of prescriptions and necessary items; and CASH! If power is out and you can’t swipe a credit card or access an ATM, nothing beats good old-fashioned money! If you have a special-needs family member, include items and supplies unique to their situation.
Hurricane events can separate families, so pick the same person through whom everyone will coordinate; someone if possible who lives safely out-of-town. Text, don’t call, to free up telephone lines, and keep your contact information in a wallet or notebook should you be unable to start or recharge your electronics.
In addition to the above-mentioned items, to hasten your evacuation, previously assemble and store the following materials in a water-tight, fire-resistant box that becomes your “To-Go Bag.” Bring your key personal and financial documents, as well as any other essentials that would be hard to replace, along with making an electronic copy that you can upload to a secure cloud storage service. Include important medical records and insurance policies, agent contact information, a recent home inventory, and a video of your possessions. Relevant documents are birth & marriage certificates, social security card, passports, driver’s license, wills, and your house deed or lease. Pet owners need their medical records, a recent photograph should you separate, and up-to-date identification tags for their collar and carrier.
As for your home, protect all windows, doors, garage door, and if possible roof. Unplug appliances, especially televisions, and turn off electricity and the main water valve. Store lawn furniture, toys, garden tools, and tractors; remove antennas; and anchor anything you cannot bring inside, like storage sheds. Never ride out a hurricane in a mobile home; remove and secure what you can, then evacuate, either from the area completely or to safe homes of family or friends. Never use an improperly-grounded generator, nor back-feed it to your house circuits or overload it. Always be aware of the threat of carbon-monoxide poisoning, never operate one indoors, and have professionals install them with transfer switches to ensure safety.
Perhaps the most important is to maintain a full tank of gasoline in your automobile. “Your car can be your survival station,” emphasizes Jim. “You can sit in it periodically to enjoy air conditioning and use it to charge your cell to remain in contact with the outside world.”
Not A Very Pleasant Place!
Evacuate if at all possible once Lee County Emergency Management issues the order. “Head directly for I-75,” stresses Jim, “and leave in the opposite direction of the storm cone of danger. The sooner you go, the sooner you can stop, because hotels fill quickly, causing you to drive further to safety.” If you go to a shelter, bring your disaster supply kit, know they prohibit weapons and liquor, and be considerate and patient. There are 14 Lee County shelters, including the Bonita Springs YMCA, as well as the only two pet-friendly facilities at South Fort Myers High School and East Lee County High School in Lehigh Acres. All animals must be in carriers.
Experts advise that having a good supply of your regular medications, an adequate amount of food and water, and a safe and dry place to sleep will save more lives than any other preparation!
“Evacuating is a tough decision,” emphasizes Jim. “If you stay in your home, there will be no emergency services, as Lee County prohibits its vehicles on the road in sustained winds of 40 miles-per-hour or greater. Not only is a hurricane frightening, but no community is a place to be in after one. It is stiflingly hot, without electricity, sewers, plumbing, water, air conditioning, often cell service, and there are literally tons of debris – it is not a very pleasant place!”
When the storm is over, get immediate medical attention for any injuries. Avoid and promptly report any loose or downed power lines; drive only when necessary; keep away from flooded areas and beware of snakes and wildlife; check for gas leaks as well as electric, sewage, and water line damage; and take photographs and videos. The most common hurricane injuries are from chain saw accidents during cleanup, as well as from fire, since fire trucks cannot get through debris-filled roads.
“Statistically, Lee County will incur a 1-in-11 risk of a hit in any given hurricane season,” says Jim. “That is higher than Tampa Bay at 1-in-25, but safer than Miami in the 1-in-6 range.”
The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts an active 2017 hurricane season that runs from June through November, with June being a development time due to the warm Gulf waters, then maxing out on September 10, the peak temperature point. NOAA estimates that 11 to 17 storms will form in the Atlantic Ocean basin, with 5 to 9 of those reaching hurricane status, and 2 to 4 attaining the major levels of Category 3 to 5. While NOAA predicts a slightly above-average year, Colorado State University estimates 11 storms, with four hurricanes, placing it at the low end of seasonal averages. The 2017 Hurricane season actually started well before the official June 1 date, with Tropical Storm Arlene harmlessly out over the open ocean in April. The next name on the list will be Bret.
Hurricanes receive their ratings on the Saffir-Simpson Scale, from 1 at the low to 5 at the high. A Hurricane level 1 is 74 to 95 miles-per-hour (mph) that will produce some damage; Category 2 is 96 to 110 mph with extremely dangerous wind that causes extensive damage; Hurricane 3 is 111 to 129 mph to produce devastating damage; Level 4 is 130 to 156 mph that brings catastrophic damage, and a Category 5 will cause catastrophic damage. Though the United States and Southwest Florida have not been hit by a Category 3 or higher hurricane since Wilma off Marco Island in Fall 2005, it only takes one storm at the right – or wrong – place to forever change your life.
Fort Myers Beach residents and businesses may obtain a hurricane reentry pass at Town Hall. In the event of an evacuation, Lee County may require passes to re-enter the island. Pick up an application at Town Hall or online at fmbgov.com under “Community > For Islanders.” Applicants must provide a photo ID and proof of residency; for details call the Town at 239-765-0202 or see the website. For additional hurricane season information, contact Lee County Emergency Management at 239-533-0622, see LeeEOC.com or call the United Way Storm Information Hotline at 211.