The Category 4 Hurricane Niko slammed into Southwest Florida during the early morning of Tuesday, July 9, devastating our area. By the time the monster storm roared off into the Gulf of Mexico, a 7 to 9 foot storm surge left Fort Myers Beach underwater. Big Carlos Pass Bridge received heavy damage, including the loss of the roadway leading to and from it, with the first island of the Sanibel Causeway completely gone.
The storm surge, along with 14 inches of rain, left Downtown Fort Myers with 3 to 5 feet of standing water, with 2 to 3 feet further inland. US 41 was missing several bridges, and Alligator Alley lost its roadway in many places, forcing its closure for an undetermined time. Niko spawned tornados in Lehigh Acres and North Fort Myers, traffic lights were out all over Lee County, and eight days later, over 250,000 residents were still without power. Despite all this, it would be some time before the State and Federal governments were focused on our recovery, as the Miami area took the brunt of the impact and was in worse condition.
No, this is not an article from one of “The Island Sand Paper’s” famous April Fool’s Day editions, nor a movie script for some undeveloped feature picture, but the Hurricane Preparedness Seminar hosted by the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau (VCB) and Lee County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) for Fort Myers Beach and other local participants on Friday, May 31, at the EOC at 2675 Ortiz Avenue. Roughly 50 people took part, with 12 from the Fort Myers Beach, Captiva and Sanibel islands, with the remaining participants from Fort Myers, Bonita Springs and unincorporated Lee County. The three islands operated together in our own corner of the EOC, with the other three jurisdictions in their own portions of the large open room, so everyone could easily see and communicate with each another. While it was only a drill, participants took it very seriously. Here’s how the mock storm unfolded in this exercise:
Friday, July 5
Southwest Florida received its initial Hurricane Niko warning on Friday, July 5, with our area enjoying clear blue skies and our hotels jammed with guests, enjoying the 4-day holiday weekend! “Once we receive this notice, Lee County immediately activates the EOC,” explained Pam Brown from the VCB. She then asked the groups to discuss four questions: Does your business have a Hurricane Crisis Plan? Have your read it? Do you know where it is? When did you last update it?
Every business in our group had a Hurricane Crisis Plan: Hotels begin evacuations immediately, especially since the bridges that connect our islands to the mainland close once winds reach 40 miles-per-hour. While current technology allows you to post pertinent data in the “cloud,” a Crisis Plan only on a thumb drive is worthless once power goes out, so print copies for everyone that they can keep at home and even in their cars, and if you have a multi-lingual workforce, do so in all necessary languages so no one feels excluded. Make sure all employees have personal plans as well, because employees are no good to you in pre-storm preparation or post-storm recuperation if they are too busy with their own families. Stock up on food and necessary supplies well in advance, as once storm warnings come out, lines quickly form and items you need will be in short supply.
The Category 3 Niko is near Puerto Rico by 11 p.m., with tropical force winds extending 316 miles from its center. While Lee County is firmly in its 3-day forecast cone, the tens of thousands of holiday weekend guests barely notice while enjoying the fun & sun.
Saturday, July 6
The EOC is in full operation, issuing a State of Emergency and evacuation orders for Zone A including Fort Myers Beach and all manufactured homes, and contemplates expanding that further inland to Zone B. It starts opening all Lee County emergency shelters, with the “Special Needs” medical ones first. The VCB issues an email blast to all hotels, to determine which ones are evacuating and which have available rooms for evacuees.
Niko is now a Category 4, with winds of 120 miles-per-hour, gusting to 135. Although its projected landfall is on Florida’s East Coast, storm surge predictions for Southwest Florida, when Niko’s counter-clockwise winds exit our area, may reach 10 to 15 feet. The priority now is evacuating the beach communities, but this not easy, as Saturday was again a beautiful weather day. This led our group to examine five more questions: What are you doing? What are you concerned about? What information do you need? When are you evacuating your business? Who are you reaching out to?
“Even though we already started evacuating, some visitors simply won’t leave,” said Frank Wood, the Safety Manager for the Sundial Beach Resort & Spa on Sanibel. “We then send our staff door-to-door, emphasizing that this is your last chance to go! You do not want to be stuck here for two weeks with no power, resources or medications. If all else fails to impress them, this one usually does it – we ask for notification information for their next of kin, and that almost immediately changes their attitude!”
Representatives from Sanibel state that their emergency personnel employ a similar strategy as they go door-to-door: “Our Fire Department passes out toe tags for residents to fill out, while the Police gives them waterproof markers to write their social security number on their limbs and torsos!”
Wood explained that their resort does not keep their employees up to the last minute: “We want to give everyone time to safely evacuate, as the bridges close when winds reach 40 miles-per-hour; what we don’t get done is why we have insurance, as our people’s lives are much more important than any property.”
Sunday, July 7
At 11 a.m., Niko is still a Cat 4 and 36 hours from Lee County. Evacuations are ongoing, with hotels east of US 41 continuing to take in the influx of evacuees. The EOC coordinates with the National Weather Service for wind, rain and storm surge predictions, to prepare for landfall, then post-storm recovery. Public Information Officers work hand-in-hand with local media, to share this information with the public via all their available avenues and, perhaps just as importantly, to squash any untrue rumors.
Monday, July 8
By early afternoon, the EOC hopes that everyone has evacuated to safe locations. Niko’s 120 mile-per-hour winds are 354 miles from its center and are hitting Lee County, closing all its bridges and suspending 911 emergency services so they can safely secure all Police, Fire and Ambulance personnel and equipment to be ready for the post-storm period.
Tuesday, July 9
Niko’s eye comes right over Lee County at 1 a.m. Even though Niko quickly ends up 50 miles offshore, Lee County experiences hurricane force winds for the next 15 hours, with the storm surge at its highest point. By 7 p.m., Lee County can release emergency personnel and equipment to assess damage and respond to 911 calls.
Due to the severe damage, Fort Myers Beach and the other barrier islands institute a strict daylight hours-only visitation policy for those with appropriate resident or business hurricane passes from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., to inspect your properties but not institute any cleanup or rebuilding. This led to the final round of questions: What information do you need? Who are you reaching out to? Can you house and feed recovery crews? What do you need from the VCB or EOC? Can you reach your staff? Do you have your emergency contact list and reentry documents?
Nine days after Niko, Lee County finally authorizes island businesses to begin their recovery. Wood suggested you select an off-island location for your available employees to meet, “then put everyone into a big van, to get an entire work crew to your place under one reentry pass.” Sanibel has a barge company under contract, to deliver generators, supplies and construction workers.
Brown said the EOC is crucial “because everyone you need to speak and coordinate with is in this room, to provide every conceivable need, so you get answers or clear up rumors. One thing the VCB continues to do is find rooms with food service for the repair crews and insurance adjusters who come from as far away as Alaska.”
When the VCB and EOC conducts these exercises again next year, Brown concluded, “We already know one new question – when was the last time you practiced your Hurricane Crisis Plan with your staff like we did today!”
Miami Hurricane of 1926
At the conclusion of the Hurricane Preparedness Seminar, we learned the EOC modeled “Hurricane Niko” on a true scenario: The Great Miami Hurricane of September 1926 that caused 372 fatalities, including 11 in Lee County. Its estimated $110 million in damages in today’s dollars would translate into $235 billion for the Miami area alone, making it still the costliest United States hurricane on record in terms of adjusted dollars.
By Gary Mooney