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Southwest Florida braces for storm impact

By Staff | Sep 7, 2017

Southwest Florida is taking the threat of major impact from Category 5 Hurricane Irma seriously and began preparations on Tuesday, well ahead of an expected weekend landfall somewhere in South Florida.

Cape Coral activated its Emergency Operations Center at Level 3 on Tuesday. Fire Chief Donald Cochran reminded residents to stay calm and to take steps to be prepared.

Two meetings of the Cape Coral City Council scheduled for 3 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. on Monday are canceled. The City Council public hearing to set the tentative millage rate and tentatively approve the city budget on Thursday also was canceled. Rescheduling these meetings is undecided at this time.

City Hall offices were closed Thursday and will be closed today. City officials canceled all Parks & Recreation programs through the weekend. The Building Division has been working closely with the Cape Coral Construction Industry Association to ensure construction sites are secured by Friday.

The Florida Highway Patrol reports a higher volume of vehicles on I-75 in South Florida, but traffic has been moving with only minor delays.

In the Cape, voluntary evacuations have been suggested.

“I am recommending to our residents that you consider leaving the city in advance of any evacuation order from our Lee County partners, especially if you live near the coastal areas,” Cape Coral Mayor Marni Sawicki said late Wednesday. “Island Coast High School will be the only designated public shelter in Cape Coral because the city lies entirely within the surge zone,” she said. “Please educate yourself and know your evacuation zone prior to any evacuation.”

At 3 p.m. Thursday, Lee County announced mandatory evacuations to go into effect this morning for the barrier islands of Bonita Beach, Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel, Captiva and Pine Island. The order will include mobile and manufactured homes throughout the county.

Seven public shelters will open at 9 a.m. today:

In Lehigh at East Lee County High School, 715 Thomas Sherwin Ave.; Varsity Lakes Middle School, 801 Gunnery Road; and Harns Marsh Middle School, 1820 Unice Ave. N. In Fort Myers at Oak Hammock Middle School, 5320 Tice St.; South Fort Myers High School, 14020 Plantation Road; and Estero Rec Center, 9200 Corkscrew Palms Road (Estero).

And Island Coast High School, 2125 De Navarra Parkway, in Cape Coral.

Tolls at all three bridges – Midpoint, Cape Coral and Sanibel Causeway – are suspended until further notice, joining the toll suspension for state bridges announced earlier this week.

LCEC has been proactive in its preparations to deal with the effects of the storm.

We have our resources in place, regular line crews lined up, three trimming crews lined up and extra trimmers on the way,” said Karen Ryan, LCEC spokesperson. “We trim trees all year, so we are out looking for areas of concern before the storm hits.”

LCEC has assembled its infrastructure supplies ahead of time like fuel, poles, wires and transformers.

“We’re gearing up for Saturday,” Ryan said. “We expect a lot of wind and likely will experience some power outages.”

To report an outage residents are asked to call 239-656-2300 or report it online at www.LCEC.net.

“People don’t realize all the behind-the-scenes work that goes on,” said Ryan. “Our employees are involved in our restoration plan. We encourage them to get their own homes ready for the storm so they can be here delivering food, doing laundry, whatever needs to be done.”

The Cape Coral Charter Schools and Lee County School District made the decision Tuesday to close schools Thursday through Monday. All after-school activities also were canceled.

Early voting in the Cape Coral and Fort Myers municipal elections were suspended Wednesday until further notice. Lee County Supervisor of Elections Tommy Doyle asked for and received approval from Gov. Rick Scott to postpone Tuesday’s Primary Election Day operations until Tuesday, Sept. 26.

Resuming early voting before the rescheduled Primary Election day is up to the cities.

“Cape Coral indicated they would like three more days,” Doyle said.

Scott also earlier this week suspended the collection of tolls on all of the state’s toll roads and during the storm. Drivers are cautioned not to use bridges and overpasses when sustained winds reach 40 mph. Local emergency services also are suspended at that wind speed until it subsides.

Waste Pro collection in Cape Coral continues through Friday morning, but will be suspended Saturday as the first wind effects are expected to arrive. Officials advise residents not to put bulky items curbside at this time as it is unknown if these can be picked up prior to the storm’s arrival. Large items can become projectiles, potentially causing injury, property damage or a road obstruction.

Meteorologists report Thursday that the earliest effects from the storm in the form of wind and rain will impact Lee County from midday Saturday until midday Monday. The exact track of the powerful storm remains a mystery. Current information has the track shifting more toward the east coast than west coast of Florida, but both coasts are within the forecast cone.

The storm is tracking west northwest until it approaches the Florida Straits where it is forecast to make a sharp turn to the north to follow a trough of low pressure between two high pressure areas. The question is whether it turns early enough to brush the east coast, or delay the turn and wind up impacting the west coast, or somewhere in between.

An east coast track will result in hurricane force winds of 75 mph and higher for those closest to the center of the storm. The west coast then would feel tropical storm force winds of 45 to 74 mph.

Irma is said to be 400 miles wide with the storm’s eye approximately 30 miles across. Hurricane force wind extend out 120 miles from the eye while tropical storm force winds extend out more than 370 miles from the eye.

U.S. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) urged the Senate on Thursday to immediately pass a $15 billion disaster aid package needed to fund FEMA past Friday as Hurricane Irma approached the Florida coast.

“I urge the Senate, I implore the Senate, I beg the Senate to pass this package,” Nelson said on the Senate floor. “FEMA is stretched, and, of all things, FEMA runs out of money unless we act by tomorrow.”

The Lee County Emergency Operations Center went to full activation at Level 1 on Wednesday. EOC officials are coordinating with partners at all levels. Emergency resources like the American Red Cross team up with law enforcement, fire departments and other government agencies in assessing and responding to situations as they develop.

Decisions on opening shelters and the mandatory evacuations were announced late Thursday afternoon. While special needs shelter registration closes when the county is included in the five-day storm cone, non-registered residents can go to a general shelter to be triaged and possibly transported to other facilities, according to county officials. Call 239-533-0640 or visit www.leeeoc.com to register.

Not all shelters open for every storm. Shelter openings are based on storm characteristics, like wind and storm surge.

Residents should continue to prepare a family disaster plan that includes supplies, batteries, radios, flashlights, medications, important insurance and personal items and documents.

Stores restock food, water and fuel and other supplies each day.

Debris resulting from the storm will be collected separately from normal household trash and recycling. Household collections will resume on a regular basis as soon as possible after the storm.

A full roster of storm preparedness and post-storm tips may be found on The Breeze website at cape-coral-daily-breeze.com/page/category.detail/nav/5147/Hurricane-Guide-2017.html .

In addition, The Breeze will continue to post Irma-related news advisories online as they come in.

The city of Cape Coral also is providing regular updates at capecoral.net/hurricane.

Safety information and tips can be found under the “Preparedness and Safety Tips” menu tab.

The EOC Emergency Information Center is available for residents who may have questions or are looking for information. Dial 3-1-1, city officials said.