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City educates public on hurricane preparedness

By Staff | Jun 7, 2017

City of Sanibel Weather Consultant Dave Roberts. MEGHAN McCOY

The latest forecast for hurricane season predicts there will be four hurricanes, with two being a category three or higher, according to the City of Sanibel Weather Consultant Dave Roberts.

“The reality is I can tell you we are going to have a busy season, or we are going to have a quite season. Guess what, it only takes one storm, one storm to ruin the day. That is why we go out of our way to be prepared,” Roberts said.

He said El Nino is not going to be very strong this year with indications that the water has been cooling in the Pacific Ocean, resulting in a warmer Gulf of Mexico. With that said, Roberts shared that the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean are about average in water temperature this year.

“So the Gulf is a little bit warmer. What does that really mean? That it probably increases our threat of tropical depressions, or our threat of tropical storms,” he said. “It increases our threat of possible rain. But, I will not tell you it means a horrible hurricane season. I will also not sit here and tell you hurricane season is not going to happen either.”

Roberts said Lee County has had seven major hurricanes since the history started being recorded. Fifty percent of the storms impacting the area have been tropical storms, while the other half have been hurricanes.

Sanibel Building Official Harold Law. MEGHAN McCOY

“Over 144 years, we have had about 54 of each that have come within about 60 miles of Sanibel,” Roberts said. “That means almost every two and a half years we have to deal with the brush of something.”

With that said, there are also gaps in the statistics. He said they have had gaps of 15 to 40 years.

The season runs from June 1, through Nov. 30. Hurricane season peaks on Sept. 10 every year.

“That’s prime time for hurricanes,” Roberts said.

For a hurricane to form, he said warm water, 80 degrees, is needed. The weather starts off as a cluster of thunderstorms before it becomes organized and turns into a tropical depressions. It then has the possibility of becoming a tropical storm then a hurricane.

Lee County Public Safety Chief of Emergency Management Jim Bjostad. MEGHAN McCOY

Storm surge is the islands biggest threat during a hurricane.

“All it takes is about a foot of running, rushing water to move a car. Half a foot is going to knock you over. Does anyone still want to stay here with a storm surge,” Roberts asked.

Lee County Public Safety Chief of Emergency Management Jim Bjostad began his presentation by telling the audience to “respect the wind and fear the surge.”

The key points of his presentation were to stay informed, make good decisions and be safe in the case of a hurricane.

“We are very vulnerable on Sanibel. So we need to pay attention and have a plan. We need to be ready to evacuate,” Bjostad said.

Chief of Police William Dalton. MEGHAN McCOY

He said about half of the people that die during a hurricane die because of storm surge, another quarter die from flooding and all of the rain.

“The surge is very dangerous. The rainfall can cause a lot of flooding onto the surge,” Bjostad said.

Sanibel Building Official Harold Law said the building department plays a major role before and after a hurricane.

“Sanibel is a complete flood zone,” he said. “Being that the average height of Sanibel is about three feet above sea level and they are predicting 8 feet of flood in some parts, makes it very serious. We work very hard to make sure your structures meet the basic heights that FEMA wants you to get above, so your house won’t flood. Then we work very hard to make sure that the water doesn’t get you, the wind won’t either.”

Emergency Management Director Lt. Elizabeth Buikema said the city plans because they want to save lives and make sure no one is in harms way.

Emergency Management Director Lt. Elizabeth Buikema. MEGHAN McCOY

“Yes, we can put a prediction on it. Yes we can tell you what we are expecting, but it is always going to be different. It is always going to be unique,” she said. “Whenever a storm hits and you see the police department and fire department evacuating, it’s a good indication that you do, too. We will not come back until it is safe for us to do so. The more you all prepare, the easier it is for us when we return back to the island and the faster it is for you all to come back.”

In terms of preparing for a hurricane, the city will provide updates hour by hour when the island is forecasted within the cone of uncertainty. If a mandatory evacuation is issued, the city will set up at Crowne Plaza to continue business.

“We will issue hurricane passes at that time as well,” she said.

The island is divided into 10 zones with the first zone being Causeway Islands, mandated by the county. The second zone starts at the east zone with the tenth zone ending on the west end of the island.

“Reentry is dependent on what kind of damage we have and whether it is safe to reenter,” Buikema said. “It may be safe for us to open six up, but not safe to open three.”

The passes are a security mechanism for the city.

“If you do not have a pass we have to stop you and ask for your credentials. Drivers license, something with your address on there to make sure you are who you say you are and you are going to that property,” she said.

F.I.S.H. Director of Operations & Grants Maggie Goldsmith shared information about the organization’s hurricane preparedness packet, which includes information about hotels, evacuation routes, suggested supply lists, a list of medications, as well as contact information for relatives on, or off the island.

“This packet is provided to anyone in the community that wants it,” Goldsmith said. “You don’t even have to live on Sanibel. We are happy to provide it to you. Our main goal is to make sure everyone has the resources that they need to ensure that they are safe in the event a storm comes our way.”

The packets are available until the end of hurricane season.

Buikema encourages home owners to secure all loose items around their home when preparing for a hurricane and install hurricane shutters. She said securing enough water, a gallon a day per person, and food, three meals a day, for each family member for seven days is also important.

To stay safe, individuals should have a plan. There are checklists located on www.leegov.com that will help residents plan and prepare ahead of a potential hurricane.

“It is really good to have hurricane buddies in other cities,” Bjostad said. “I have hurricane buddies in Vero Beach and Orlando. If they have a storm they come to me, if I have a storm I go to them. Well, I stay here and my wife goes to them.”

F.I.S.H. offers an “active list,” which includes the names of folks who are vulnerable – older, alone, have medical conditions – individuals who are brought to the organizations attention through neighbors or a family member. Goldsmith said they send out a volunteer to visit with the individual in their home to talk about their plans, how they are going to evacuate, where they are going to go and who their contacts are in the case a hurricane impacts the area.

“We keep in touch with those people throughout the whole summer informing them when a storm is on its way. Letting them know that they might want to think about evacuation. When an evacuation has been issued, ensuring that they are off the island. And then we track them until they get back safely on the island,” Goldsmith said.

At the same time, F.I.S.H. also keeps in touch with the individual’s relatives letting them know their loved one is safe.

An emergency shelter program is offered for Lee County residents in case of an evacuation. A special needs shelter is also offered for those in need of oxygen, air condition, or have to be hooked up to a machine.

“We register folks. Our medical director approves them,” he said. “There are 1,200 of them in Lee County. We follow-up with them about six days before the storm gets here. We have to find out if they are in town, if they need to go to the shelter. Do they need a ride? Do they have a pet?”

The LeeTran bus will make routes on Sanibel if an evacuation is ordered to pick residents up who do not have transportation. The buses run for free in this event and pets can be transported as long as they are in a crate.

Bjostad said through a partnership with the Lee County School District, all of their shelters can be pet friendly. Currently South Fort Myers High School and East Lee High Schools are designated as shelters for pets.

When a pet is brought to a shelter, individuals should bring their food, leash, crate, medication and vaccination records.

“You are not in the shelter with them. You are in the people part and the animals are in the animal part with animal services and volunteers. We ask you to walk them and comfort them,” he said.

Generators was a topic discussed, especially for ones that have been permanently installed. Bjostad said a generator should be installed by a licensed electrician for safety hazards, as well as to keep linemen trying to get the electricity up and running again safe.

“They have a line de-energized and your generator is not attached correctly, the current that is in the line can hurt, or kill, the linemen trying to get your power running again,” he said.

In addition, carbon dioxide detectors should always be next to an individual’s bed when sleeping, when using a generator. Bjostad said never run a generator on the lanai, or in the garage.

After a hurricane, Law said they have a team of about 50 trained personnel that the city hires on a part-time basis to go out and evaluate every structure on the island before residents are allowed back.

“During Charley it took us two and a half days to evaluate that and we were using pencil and paper. Today we are all computerized. The results of looking at your home, or looking at your neighbors home, is almost instantaneous as we evaluate them,” Law said.

Individuals will have the opportunity to get on the city’s website, as well as the county’s to see those updates.

“Don’t hurry if you know we looked at your home and there is no major damage to it,” Law said. “Don’t try to rush back to the island. Let the emergency people come in and clean the roads. Get the power back up. Get your water running before you even think about coming back.”