Hurricane Prep on a Barrier Island

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Active Season Predicted; Prepare Now

While the 2020 Hurricane Season officially began on Monday, June 1, continuing through November 30, May’s Tropical Storms Arthur and Bertha made it six straight years that a named disturbance beat it to the starting line, with Tropical Storm Cristobal now rotating in the Bay of Campeche. Cristobal set a record for the earliest a third named storm formed in the Atlantic basin ever. With such an active season already, the Fort Myers Beach Fire Department wants residents to know that hurricane preparations need to be well underway now, especially for our barrier island community. Do not wait until August to get serious about hurricane prep. Executive Assistant Chief of Life Safety & Support Services Ron Martin, with the assistance of Deputy Fire Marshal and Risk Reduction Officer Jennifer Campbell, provide potentially life-saving advice.

“The FMB Fire Department works closely with all our community’s major players to ensure our island is ready for hurricane season,” related Chief Martin. “This includes Lee County Emergency Management and the Town of Fort Myers Beach. We want all our citizens to have a hurricane plan to enact at a moment’s notice. While we want you to have on-hand all the necessities to ride out a hurricane in the comfort of your own home, being that we live on a barrier island that is in the primary Evacuation Zone A that can suffer everything from storm surge to wind damage to flash flooding, each of us needs to be ready to go if the Lee County Emergency Operations Center declares an evacuation. Pay attention not only to the area media outlets but follow social media sites from the FMB Fire Department, the Town of Fort Myers Beach and Lee County Emergency Management for instructions.”

Ready to Go

Hurricane Prep Barrier Islands-Hurricane Donna over the Gulf Coast September 10 1960
Hurricane Donna over the Gulf coast on September 10, 1960.

Chief Martin recommended, “Everyone should register at AlertLee.com for all emergency warnings, along with its app, Lee Prepares. Before, during and after a hurricane, social media can be your best friend!” Marshal Campbell added, “These social media sites not only provide you with valuable hurricane information, but equally as important, they squash untrue rumors.”

Should Lee County Emergency Management declare a voluntary or mandatory evacuation order for Fort Myers Beach, “Follow it,” stressed Chief Martin! “That is why we recommend everyone have a plan to implement. If your best option is a Lee County shelter, go, but know upfront it will have none of the creature comforts of home, as their only function is to keep you safe from the wind and water. We recommend however that a Lee County shelter be your last option, especially now with COVID-19 concerns, as social distancing in one will be tough, so bring a facecover, hand sanitizer, surgical gloves and cleaning wipes. The best advice is to travel well out of our area, or at least get east of I-75, into the home of a family member or friend, hotel or motel. Don’t wait until the last possible minute to leave, as Lee County and Town officials close both bridges when wind conditions dictate.”

Lee County offers Special Needs Shelters for those with medical necessities, but you must register for those spaces every year in advance at 239-533-0622 or through the Emergency Management page at leegov.com.

Hurricane Kit Essentials

“Everyone should have a minimum supply of essentials to be self-sufficient for 72 to 96 hours,” Chief Martin stated. “While Lee County Emergency Management does a great job in warehousing supplies, a severe hurricane can damage infrastructure to the point that even First Responders may initially have trouble getting back on the island, so you may be on your own for that long. Recall the images we all saw from Hurricane Andrew or Michael, Katrina or Super Storm Sandy, as that can be us next time, so make sure you have everything you need in that contingency, as in severe cases it can take a while to move resources. These supplies include not only you and your family, but pets as well.”

He recommended an adequate amount of non-perishable foods, “at least a gallon of water per day for every person and your pets, and remember if you do any post-storm cleanup, more water than that because this is the hottest time of year and physical activity means you go through it faster. Many people already put in supplies they can use for hurricane season in preparation in case the coronavirus caused them to shelter-at-home for 14 days. The biggest difference might be the type of food; for COVID-19, you can fill your freezer, but for a hurricane and possible loss of electricity, that means non-perishables.”

Get medication refills in advance of the storm, “as most pharmacies let you fill these due to the impending emergency,” Chief Martin continued. “Store your important insurance policies and personal documents like identification cards, driver’s license, Social Security cards, and passports in waterproof carriers or tightly sealed plastic bags in your personal hurricane kit ready to go. Have ample cash, should the power be out and you cannot use credit cards, and solar cellphone chargers are great. If you do not have a purple or yellow FMB Hurricane Reentry Passes for your home and business, get them as soon as you can from Town Hall. Know the location of all your utility breakers, so you can safely and quickly turn off your electricity, water and natural gas, as those are the last things to do before evacuating or when the storm hits. Regardless if it is for COVID-19 or a hurricane, use the same intensity and vigor in your preparation.”

If you stocked up on hurricane supplies last year, there is no guarantee they are still good this season, Chief Martin explained. “Batteries are an excellent example, as they have various shelf lives depending on the brand. If you have any doubt, contact the manufacturer or check them out yourself, as the last thing you want in a hurricane is to learn they do not work for your flashlights or radio. Stock up on batteries, as you want to use electric illumination alternatives as opposed to candles or non-electric lanterns that can cause fires, as you want to avoid all open flames under hurricane confinement.”

Shutters & Generators

Beachfront home after Hurricane Donna. Photo courtesy of Estero Island Historical Society.

Marshal Campbell reminded that as soon as the hurricane threat is over, “immediately take down your home’s shutters. These are not meant to be up for the duration of hurricane season but only when the threat of a storm is eminent. Otherwise, your home becomes a vault that makes it difficult for us to get to you in a fire or emergency. Another essential is a full tank of gas in your car. Not only do you want to avoid the long gas station lines should you need to evacuate, but once a storm is over, if you do not have power, you can cool off in your car’s air conditioning or have an extra gas supply for your generator. If you store gas, do so only in specifically designed containers. Check out the FMB Fire Department homepage, Facebook and Instagram pages for information and advice. Finally, don’t be complacent and prepare as if your life depended on it, as it just might!”

“My biggest piece of advice goes back to generators,” said Chief Martin. “Keep generators at least 10 feet from not only your home, but your neighbors and the garage, and never run them inside your house or even breezeway. Never wire them to your home yourself, but hire a licensed electrician. Read your owner’s manual and know its safety limits. Never fuel them while they are hot or running, and make sure you have a fire extinguisher and at least one carbon monoxide detector in your home.”

The Big One

While Hurricanes Charley, Wilma and Irma impacted Fort Myers Beach to various degrees over the past 15 years, you must go back to Donna in 1960 for one that directly hit the island. “Even after six decades, I believe we have a collective memory of how bad a direct strike can be,” Martin related. “Long-time residents remember Donna’s devastation, with those lessons reinforced by Charley. We have many people who relocated here over the years who went through Hurricane Andrew on Florida’s east coast, or Super Storm Sandy up north, so they vividly recall the danger a powerful hurricane can bring, and we all witnessed enough of that with Irma less than three years ago. Even though Irma was not a Category 5, the FMB Fire Department is really proud that most islanders evacuated when the word came, then returned in an orderly fashion, just as they should have!”

Chief Martin concluded, “When you do your hurricane preparations, check with your neighbors, especially the elderly. If you go to the store to get water or batteries, see if you can get some for them as well. The greatest thing about Fort Myers Beach is not our water or sand, but how this community takes care of each other all the time, whether it be COVID-19, hurricanes or Red Tide. When it comes to hurricanes, we really truly do weather the storm together!”