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Prepare for this year’s hurricane season

By Staff | May 3, 2017

With hurricane season approaching there are many steps Sanibel and Captiva residents can take to ensure they practice safety if an evacuation were to take place.

One of the first steps residents are encouraged to take is apply for the Hurricane Reentry Pass Program.

Emergency Management Specialist Lance Henninger said they took the landmass of Sanibel and Captiva and broke it into a number of reentry zones. After an evacuation is issued, law enforcement personnel are back on the road and it is determined safe to reenter, access to the island is controlled at the toll plaza area.

“There are things we have to do to prepare the island before we allow residents to return. It’s all about safety and security,” Henninger said. “As we complete the things we need to in the various areas, reentry zones, we will put out information in press releases and emails that tell people what reentry zone is authorized for access, phased reentry.”

When it is safe to return to the island, a few lanes will be open at the causeway plaza – a lane specifically for people who have a pass, and those who do not.

Henninger said when an individual’s zone is authorized to return to the island, regardless if they have a pass or not, they will still be able to gain access.

“People who have a pass, that line, moves more quickly because we’ve already prescreened the pass holders. That is one of the primary reasons we have that system. It makes it easy for them and truthfully it makes it easier for us as well,” he said.

The passes are issued year round Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Sanibel Police Department. The applications can also be submitted through mail, fax, or electronically. Residential and commercial passes are available with each having its own application and verification requirements are specific to what type of pass.

“I tend to like people to come in if they have never had a pass before. They get a little bit more information as far as how the program works,” Henninger said.

The zones are numbered from the island’s access point, the causeway, then in and around Sanibel to Captiva. Henninger said they typically work on a couple zones at one time when clearing for reentry.

“For instance, if zone 6 is prepared, and we are also working on zone 5, but zone 5 is not ready, there is a possibility we will let the (zone) 6 people in, not necessarily wait to five. Again, nothing is fixed. Every situation is different. Generally we run in a numerical flow, but generally its not necessarily going to be in numeric order every time,” he said.

The program was present before Hurricane Charley made landfall in 2004 with ID cards. After the storm hit, hangtags began being used, as well as the island being divided into zones.

“We learned in Charley that sometimes when we just let people back on they got maybe a third of the way west on the island and couldn’t get any further because Periwinkle was still blocked with trees. It just added to the frustration. So we learned we were better off if they can’t actually get home to not let them on the island. That is when we broke the island up into zones,” Chief of Police William Dalton said.

A new series of the Hurricane Reentry Pass Program began in 2016 with residential passes deemed purple and commercial passes tan.

“We are using those passes again this year. To date we have issued over 5,100 passes on the residential side. It’s a great number. The program has really taken off and people are really getting the message,” Henninger said. “We have already exceeded in this series what we did in the last series, which began in 2012. We have issued more passes just in the last year.”

For more information about the Hurricane Reentry Pass Program, or to print an application, visit www.mysanibel.com under the emergency management section of the Sanibel Police Department.

There are many steps individuals should take to become hurricane ready for this season, which begins on Thursday, June 1.

Dalton said people should make their home ready for the season by having hurricane shutters and impact rated doors and windows. As the time nears June 1 they should also gather up loose items, such as grills and lawn furniture, around their house.

“What is most important, because we are a barrier island, is if we issue a mandatory evacuation order we really implore everyone to evacuate. The average elevation of the island is a little over 3 feet. The National Weather Service had made an estimate that if Hurricane Charley was a normal size category 3 storm, Charley was a very small storm, it would have pushed a wall of water over Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel and Captiva 17 feet high. That would have been a game changer. As bad as Charley was, the real threat to any hurricane is storm surge,” Dalton said.

As a barrier island there is no protection that would slow a storm down.

“Issuing a mandatory evacuation order is the most serious thing the city does. We have only issued one in the history of the city and that one was for Charley,” Dalton said. “We believe when we issue that order you are more likely to perish if you stay here than not.”

Residents will start to get notified if they are in the cone of a hurricane five days out. He said the decision of evacuations are made based on each storm’s conditions.

“We do that in conjunction with our partners of Lee County and we have a weather consultant who gives us a specific forecast for Sanibel,” Dalton said.

Henninger said the general emergency management philosophy of any disaster is if possible try to evacuate any personnel before the arrival of sustained tropical force winds.

“By the time you have tropical force winds in your area, you have gusts that far exceed that and it is unsafe to travel,” he said.

Once sustained winds hit 40 miles per hour, first responders, law enforcement, EMS, or fire, countywide stop responding.

It is important that individuals have an evacuation plan in place – where they are going to stay if they need to evacuate. Henninger said it is always a good idea to have two locations to consider depending on the size of the hurricane and where it is coming from.

“There are shelters in the county. Obviously, no place has enough shelters to take care of the entire population,” he said. “Life at a shelter, you will survive, it is not comfortable. They are well run, but the space is very limited. You don’t want to go there unless you absolutely have to.”

Shelters should be used, he said when for some reason an individual cannot execute their personal evacuation plan.

Henninger said he encourages individuals to visit the Lee County website, www.leegov.com, to view the “Family Disaster Plan” under the emergency management tab. He said it is easy to use, comprehensive and it puts information together in one location that one may not think to gather.

“It’s basically a checklist. You can print it off and go through it with your family and devise a plan and use it as a checklist to make sure you have everything you need and that you are prepared,” Lieutenant Elizabeth Buikema said. “I think the best thing is to go about a month before hurricane season starts to start preparing yourself and going through that checklist to make sure that you have all the items and necessary plans for you and your family in an event, God forbid, May 30 we start seeing storms ramp up.”

The document can be saved and edited year, after year for hurricane season.

Individuals should have enough food and water for their family – three meals a day per person and one gallon of water per day, per person.

“A good rule of thumb is to have at least five days on hand,” Dalton said.

The city will hold its hurricane seminar from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Friday, May 26, at BIG ARTS, 900 Dunlop Road.

The guest speakers will include the City of Sanibel’s weather consultant Dave Roberts; Lee County Emergency Management Program Manager Jim Bjostad; F.I.S.H. Director of Operations and Grants Maggie Goldsmith; City of Sanibel Building Official Harold Law; Buikema and Dalton.