“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 warning for a hurricane. With that much lead time, everyone should be ready.”
Bjostad and NBC2 meteorologist Kristen Kirchhaine led a free 90-minute Hurricane Preparedness Seminar at the Healthy Life Center at Coconut Point Mall on Wednesday, June 1. Their timing was perfect, as what would become Tropical Storm Colin appeared on long-range forecasts 24 hours later.
Jim sums up hurricane preparedness in one phrase: “Respect the wind, fear the surge!” Wind is dangerous but if you are in a safe place like a concrete structure you will most likely be all right, but he cautions that “you cannot outrun the surge – if you are in a flood level and we get a significant surge, you drown.” Bjostad tells the audience that if they leave knowing only one thing, it is their home’s location in the storm surge zones. Southwest Florida has 5 designated ones, with Zone A the most prone, up to Zone E or the least. Kristen adds that forecasting now can offer up to a 48-hour storm surge notice to assist evacuations.
Historic Season Already
Although the 2016 Hurricane Season officially began that day, Kristin states there are already two named storms: Alex back in January that became a hurricane, and Bonnie from the recent Memorial Day holiday. When Colin eventually emerged last Sunday, it was the earliest on record for three named systems in the first five days. She explains that local forecasters work closely with organizations like the National Hurricane Center to provide residents a coordinated message. “We want you safe and informed, so we cannot issue conflicting statements. If you have your Hurricane Preparedness Kit in place, we will guide you through the rest.” Jim concurred, saying, “Lee County Emergency Management has a 20-person social media team to get out facts as well as to kill false rumors.”
Early evidence, Kristen illustrates, indicates a dome of cold water may push south into the Atlantic Ocean, and that may consolidate storm-inducing warm water in the Caribbean basin, making it highly conducive to formation. However, previous seasons with similar setups led to from 4 to 14 storms, revealing no discernable pattern. Nor are there signs that seasons with early storms like 2016 will be overly active or dangerous. June is a development time due to the warm Gulf waters off our coast, maxing out on September 10, the peak temperature point.
Jim observes that Lee County has a limited chance for hurricanes. “Statistically, we incur a 1-in-11 risk in any given season. That is higher than Tampa Bay at 1-in-25, but safer than Miami in the 1-in-6 range.” Lee County Commissioners issue evacuation notices. “Once that occurs, head directly for I-75,” stresses Jim. “Get to the expressway and we will get you out safely.” Evacuate in the opposite direction of the storm cone of danger. The sooner you leave, the sooner you can stop, because hotels fill quickly, causing you to drive further to safety.
Jim admits that while evacuation is mandatory, it is unenforceable; if you stay, that is your decision, but there will be no emergency services as Lee County prohibits its vehicles on the road in winds of 40 miles-per-hour or greater. “We do this not only for the safety of our personnel, but because we need every person and vehicle available for cleanup and to restore daily life.” While this did not become a Lee County issue, high winds from Colin caused Tampa Bay to close the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and Naples its pier.
Consider your options in the following order: stay at home if you are safe; go to family or a friend who live in a safe location; travel to a hotel or motel out of the cone of danger; Lee County general population shelter; or Lee County special needs shelter with previous approval. “Every LeeTran bus will get you to a shelter for free,” explains Jim. “Only South Fort Myers High School is pet-friendly, and they must be in a crate.”
Hurricane Preparedness Kits need enough water and non-perishable foods per-person for 3 to 5 days. It should include a portable battery-operated radio, flashlights and batteries, money and prescriptions, 1st aid kit, and ice, as well as pet necessities. “Evacuating is a tough decision,” emphasizes Jim. “But not only is a hurricane frightening, but no community is a place to be 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!”
Hurricanes bring auxilliary issues. Tornadoes frequently spin off from them, as with Colin, with sightings in Charlotte, Collier, and Lee Counties, including Fort Myers Beach at Lover’s Key State Park. There were no reported injuries nor significant damage, though Matlacha and Cape Coral experienced higher coastal water than normal, and waves and high tides caused the Sanibel Lighthouse road to wash away, with repairs to be complete by the weekend. The prime effect on Fort Myers Beach was local flooding in parking lots and low-lying areas. The storm’s full effects on turtle nests won’t be known until later in the summer as nests hatch.
The most common hurricane injuries are from chain saw accidents during cleanup, as well as from fire, since trucks cannot get through debris-filled roads. Never use a generator indoors, to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, and have professionals install them with transfer switches to ensure safety.
Perhaps most important is to maintain at least a half-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.”
Colin had an extremely narrow cone that ran horizontally from The Big Bend along the Georgia line to Jacksonville. It was fast, moving from the Gulf of Mexico over Florida and exiting the East Coast within 24 hours. As opposed to many tropical features, its eye was not an issue, causing Colin to be broad and ill-defined, with heaviest rain to its north and east, including Southwest Florida. Governor Rick Scott declared Florida a Level II Emergency, the middle of its three tiers, and placed on standby 6,000 National Guard troops, but Colin raced off without significant incident early Tuesday, June 7. Its trailing tail of thunderstorms will keep showers in our area for the balance of the workweek.
For additional hurricane season information, contact Lee County Emergency Management see www.LeeEOC.com or call 239-533-0622, the United Way Storm Information Hotline at 2-1-1 or Ms. Kirchhaine at Kristen.email@example.com. Fort Myers Beach residents are urged to sign up for Re-entry passes and Code Red notifications at www.fortmyersbeachfl.gov or by visiting Town Hall.
Jim concludes by saying: “Do not be afraid to reside in Southwest Florida – I am three blocks from the beach and I am a Hurricane Guy – but we have our family safety plan in place. Once you take the necessary storm precautions, the beach is the greatest place to live!”