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Regional summit focuses on lessons learned from Irma

By Staff | Feb 23, 2018

Hurricane Irma was the main topic of discussion for local leaders Friday.

Lee County Commissioner Chairman Cecil Pendergrass led the Six County Regional Summit, a semi-annual meeting among county commissioners of six different counties, to discuss issues of regional interest.

In attendance with Pendergrass were Ray Sandrick, Charlotte County manager; Christopher Constance, Charlotte County commissioner; Donna Storter-Long, Glades County commissioner; Chis Chapman, Hendry County manager; Emily Hunter, Hendry County communications director; Roger Dejarlais, Lee County manager; Al Maio, Sarasota County commissioner; Jonathan Lewis, Sarasota County commissioner; and Leo Ochs, Collier County manager.

The officials from the six counties meet several times a year.

Irma dominated the meeting’s discussion. While all six counties were affected by the storm in Sept. 2017, each experienced a different problem or success.

“It was the storm that keep on giving,” Maio said. “We had very little structural damage, very little water damage. We got beat up for not picking up debris quick enough.”

Hurricane Irma created massive amounts of vegetation debris across the state, and since it occurred just weeks after Hurricane Harvey, contractors were in short supply, he said.

Constance wanted to know if agencies like Florida Power and Light had any kind of preemptive trimming policy that could be implemented before the next big storm to reduce the mass of fallen trees and limbs in the future. In Charlotte County, Constance found that the area that was hit by Hurricane Charley in 2004 was the best off after the storm, because Charley had eliminated lots of foliage more than a decade ago. Also, the power line poles in the southern area of the county had been replaced after Charley with hurricane-hardened materials, helping get its residents back online more quickly than the rest of the county after Irma.

To be sure to get as much reimbursement as possible, Constance said Charlotte County’s crews carefully documented and geolocated all their work into a database.

“It was indisputable evidence of what we did,” he said.

Glades County is just now going through a third round of debris pick-up, Storter-Long said. In Hendry, where many of its residents own large trucks, many of its property owners started hauling away debris on their own.

“The citrus industry got hit hard,” he said.

Dejarlais said one of Lee County’s successes in handling almost 3 million cubic yards of debris was opening up 11 collection sites around the county. It was a quicker turnaround time for outside contractors’ truckers to go out, collect, dump and repeat without spending too much time driving. Lee County also lifted the site fee for residents who wanted to come and dump debris themselves.

“Collection sites came out to be really important,” he said.

Other county officials discussed the importance of making all the shelters pet-friendly for the next storm, a choice Lee County made during Irma.

“We didn’t have a dedicated animal shelter but we weren’t going to turn people away,” Chapman said.

His staff ended up cutting holes in trash cans and recycling bins to give people a place to keep their animals in the shelter. Maio said adding animals also increased the time they had to keep the schools they used as shelters closed for cleanup.

Chapman said his county was researching an emergency fiberoptic communication line between Hendry and its neighboring counties in the event of another wide-spread storm. During Irma, Hendry lost 911 services for three days when CenturyLink’s generator ran out of fuel twice, he said. He had residents requesting emergency services through Facebook messages.

Pendergrass showed the other commissioners the outreach efforts developed by the communications department before and after the storm, gathering all relevant information to a dedicated Irma page on the county website. After the storm, to belay questions about debris clean up, staff developed an interactive map to show where the county was picking up that day.

“People wanted real information. They just wanted to see something,” Dejarlais said.

– Moving people in, and around

While Irma was a hot topic, Sarasota, Lee and Collier counties shared a similar situation in dealing with affordable, attainable housing for workforce-level locals. It’s an issue facing many of the Gulf Coast’s growing areas.

Sarasota County is working on somewhat of an incentive for affordable housing. Maio said for apartments less than 900 square feet, Sarasota County could reduce fees and allow the developer to allot only one parking space for that unit to encourage such development. Builders have been asking for the flexibility so they aren’t paying as much for building a 900-foot apartment as they would a large house, Maio said.

“They said, you want this smaller stuff but you’re hitting us with these fees, you all are driving our costs up,” Maio said.

Housing costs in Sarasota aren’t cheap: Maio said some new apartments cost upwards of $1,700 a month for a two-bedroom unit, so encouraging affordable housing is a priority.

“Some of us on the board, we gag at that number,” Maio said.

Lee County also has an affordable housing problem, but so far hasn’t come up with a solution. Pendergrass, who sits on the Habitat for Humanity board, said the non-profit has been asking for the county to reduce its charge of impact fees to nonprofits. The Lee County School District was going to build affordable housing for its teachers but was also deterred by the impact fees.

In both Sarasota and Lee, people are beginning to resort to new kinds of housing. Lewis said there’s a community of revamped box cars being turned into homes; Pendergrass said Matlacha was getting a community of “tiny homes.”

With growth comes grappling with public transportation. Despite a growing population, several of the counties, including Lee, are seeing a decrease in ridership.

“We can’t subsidize routes with two riders an hour,” Maio said.

Pendergrass and Dejarlais said some Lee routes faced similar shortages.

“We’ve got some pretty tough decisions to make coming up,” Dejarlais said.

Without a dense urban core, it’s a hard sell with public transportation. Pendergrass said Lee County had “so much sprawl.”

Both counties have one route that’s been a growing success: beach trolleys. Lee County’s beach trolley is one of its best-ridden. The new park and ride facility is aimed at getting people out of their cars on the beach, and Dejarlais said it’s not reaching capacity yet. However, the county’s new free-to-ride tram system on the beach is a big success in its first couple weeks.

“We’re watching you,” Maio said. “Every two riders on the trolley is one less car movement. That’s a big deal.”