Those who survived Hurricane Irma last September 10 should need no prodding the prepare for the 2018 Hurricane Season; if you had any doubt, Subtropical Storm Alberto’s late May appearance, before Hurricane Season even begins, proved that now is the time to have your emergency plan in place.
With that in mind, “no one should be afraid of hurricanes,” said “Hurricane Jim” Bjostad, the Emergency Management Program Manager for Lee County Emergency Management to an overflow crowd of over 100 people at the Lakes Regional Library recently. “Not even with a potential monster like Irma. That is because six days out, we gave a pretty reliable warning that Irma was on her way, allowing you to make appropriate preparations. If you live in ‘Tornado Alley,’ you may get six reliable minutes to react; if you are in an earthquake zone, you don’t even get six seconds, so all things considered, Southwest Florida is a wonderful place to live!”
Bjostad cautioned that Lee County is the most dangerous area in the nation for hurricane threats, specifically storm surges, “because our Gulf of Mexico coastline is so shallow, making it crucial for us all to know our evacuation zone, ranging from ‘A’ in the most flood-prone areas to ‘E’ in the least. Statistically, Lee County will incur a 1-in-11 risk of a hit in any given hurricane season. That is higher than Tampa Bay at 1-in-25, but safer than Miami at 1-in-6.”
Early 2018 Hurricane predictions call for 14 named storms, with 7 reaching hurricane-sustained winds of at least 74 miles-per-hour, and 3 in the major categories of Level 3 or higher of at least 111 miles-per-hour. If these numbers hold, that would be a slightly higher than average year. “Of course,” he reasoned, “if there is only one, but it strikes us, that is an above-average year! Irma hit us literally on the peak day of the season, on September 10. Wilma in 2005 was a late-season event, while Andrew, that decimated Homestead in 1992, was literally the first storm that year.”
Respect the Wind; Fear the Surge
When it comes to hurricane preparedness, Bjostad summed it up in one phrase: “’Respect the wind, fear the surge!’ If we have a significant storm surge, there is no place to run! In Lee County, we can have a half-million people in Zones A & B, so it can take two-and-a-half-days to evacuate those areas. Lee County Commissioners issue the evacuation order and did so for Irma when the predicted storm surge was to be 10 to 15 feet high. A hurricane’s eye hosts its maximum wind speed, spinning counter-clockwise, and that is what made Irma such a potential storm surge threat. Fortunately, the eye wobbled at the last minute, hitting Marco Island and the Everglades, so we lucked out.”
Evacuating is a tough decision, emphasized Bjostad. “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. 911 operates, but no one responds until winds drop below that. Make a hurricane plan and do so closer to Memorial Day than Labor Day! Wherever you end up should be at least 25 feet above sea level and 10 miles inland. Lee County has one Special Needs Shelter, with electricity for medical equipment and air conditioning, including transportation arrangements, but you must register for that well in advance of a hurricane, as it takes at least five days to clear you through the system. We only have 2,500 beds there for roughly 750,000 people, so registration well in advance is key!”
Lee County last year decided to accept pets at all shelters, he related. “Up to then, we only had one pet-friendly shelter, but discovered the Number One Reason why people won’t leave their homes is they won’t leave behind Lady or Tabby.”
He emphasized, “Shelters are not fun but during Irma we safely housed over 35,000 people and 5,000 pets. Nobody died, went hungry or became dehydrated, and each had American Red Cross personnel and Lee County Sheriff’s Deputies to take care of medical and safety needs. It is not a vacation, but during these rare emergencies, we become your lifeboat and you will survive, so wrap your head around that!”
Be as comfortable as you can, like wearing short sleeves and pants; bringing your cellphone charger, board games and reading materials; and remember: baby wipes are your best friend! “You can have an air mattress but not pop-up tents or anything that prevents law enforcement from seeing inside, and we prohibit weapons and alcohol. For Irma, we planned to open 5 or 6 shelters and ended up with 14! While waiting to enter, have an umbrella, chair and sunscreen to protect against the hot sun. Do these things and we will all get through this together!”
Hurricane Preparedness Kits
Whether you stay or evacuate, Bjostad encouraged everyone to have a Hurricane Preparedness Kit. “You need enough water and non-perishable food-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 containers with water and place them in the freezer. They become ice, so if you lose power, they 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 cash! If power is out and you can’t swipe a credit card or access an ATM, nothing beats good old-fashioned money!”
Hurricanes can separate families, so pick the same person through whom everyone can coordinate; preferably someone living 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.
Hasten your evacuation by previously assembling the following materials in a water-tight, fire-resistant box that becomes your “To-Go Bag.” Bring key personal and financial documents and make an electronic copy you can upload into a secure cloud storage service. Include important medical records and insurance policies, agent contact information, and a recent home inventory and video of your possessions. Relevant documents are birth & marriage certificates, social security card, passports, driver’s license, wills, and house deed or lease. Pet owners must keep them in a carrier if in a shelter, and take their medical records, a recent photograph should you separate, up-to-date identification tags, and adequate water, food, and medication.
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, and garden tools; remove antennas; anchor anything you cannot bring inside; never stay in a mobile home; have a weather radio you can buy for about $25; and upload safety apps like Code Red, as Lee County has roughly 30 employees updating social media throughout the emergency. Keep your vehicle gas tanks full, because when power is out and you have no air conditioning, you can hop in every so often to keep cool!
After The Storm
Following Irma, only about 1% of Lee County had power the next day, Bjostad explained. “The first thing we do is clear a lane through major roadways, to respond to the most dire emergencies. Drinking water and sewage may be limited, with cellphone infrastructure down, making communication difficult. The first grids to come back online are for hospitals and major shelters, like Germaine and Alico Arenas. Next are those to critical infrastructures, then the largest populations, followed by individual blocks.”
If you use a home generator, make sure a licensed electrician does the work, “not only for your safety but for electrical workers, to not injure or kill them by reverse power surges. Never use generators in your home, garage or on the lanai that prevents air circulation, but at least 15 feet from your home and neighbors. Have a carbon dioxide detector, with fresh batteries, and sleep with it right next to your head, as that gas is colorless, odorless and tasteless.”
Fort Myers Beach residents and businesses may obtain a hurricane reentry pass at Town Hall. In the event of an evacuation, the town may require passes to re-enter the island. Pick up an application at Town Hall or online at www.fmbgov.com under “Community > For Islanders.” Applicants must provide a photo ID and proof of residency; for details call 239-765-0202 or see the website. For additional hurricane information, contact Lee County Emergency Management at 239-533-0622, see www.LeeEOC.com or call the United Way Storm Information Hotline at 211.
“While Hurricanes Charley and Wilma were bad,” Bjostad concluded, “the last time we had a once-in-a-lifetime-threatening storm before Irma was Donna in 1960, so percentage-wise we should not have another for 57 years. It is, however, much smarter to prepare for another one now, so we all get through it safely!”