To the editor:
The hurricane plan for Sanibel has always been “evacuation.” Our most recent experience suggests that those who stayed on the island fared better than residents who took to the road north, or who stayed in a shelter off island. Sanibel was one of the safer places in Florida. Neither the hysterical media, nor the politicians could predict a safe location. The choice was either an unknown mainland shelter, or to flee as far north as possible. One of our neighbors went to a hotel 50 miles north and then was “evacuated” to the east. “I should have stayed at home,” she said.
The officials who mandate evacuation do not consider the traffic jams, road rage, gasoline shortages, auto accidents, or heart attacks associated with long distance driving. One resident reported “crazy” traffic as far north as Nashville, Tennessee. Our experience was typical; a truck stalled in the middle lane blocked traffic for miles north of Tampa on route 75. We did not find a motel until north of Montgomery, Al.
The experiences of those who went to mainland shelters was no better. One shelter in Sarasota allowed 20 square feet per person with 1,700 people, but another 600 crowded into the airless space. Thirty-two thousand humans and 1,700 pets jammed into 16 locations in Lee County during the recent storm. Crowding thousands of people into a closed space is an invitation for respiratory diseases, influenza, dysentery and panic that could lead to violence. One Sanibel resident was not reassured by the gun toting National Guardsmen whom she referred to as “children in uniform.”
Is there a better plan? The city should survey buildings for wind resistance and elevation above sea level for local shelters. The Rec Center-school, the library, City Hall, the Bank of America, the Bank of the Islands and some of the churches are well built and elevated. Storm surge is a threat, but extensive vegetation in Sanibel’s nature preserves lie between the Gulf and buildings in the middle of the island. This dense vegetation would blunt the force of a storm surge.
Several local shelters would reduce the undesirable effects of over-crowding. Planning should include poling citizens to see who would prefer a local refuge to long distance driving, or mainland shelters. These citizens could then pre-select a shelter and be responsible for their own water, food, bedding and flashlights. Citizens should also be responsible for providing sufficient water to flush toilets when the water supply shuts down. Annual pre-hurricane season drills would smooth the process.
The loss of electricity is the main concern in the immediate post hurricane period. Each pre-selected shelter could have a generator to provide enough power for light and air-conditioning to provide temporary relief for those who either stay, or return to their homes. The cost of providing for the local shelters could be borne by those who elect to stay.
The city could also help local citizens by maintaining a “hurricane desk” with telephone lines and internet access. This center could keep up-to-date information on the availability of local hotels prior to the storm, as well as information on island resorts that have power and air conditioning available for local citizens.
Nikolas Ventura, the local resident, who famously stayed on the island might be the right person to plan for the next hurricane.
Sanibel could become famous for a “stay put” plan, rather than mass, hysterical evacuation.
John Raffensperger, MD