Weathering The Storm: Sanibel hosts annual Hurricane Seminar for community
The city of Sanibel hosted its 2018 Hurricane Seminar on April 5 for residents and businesses.
Held at BIG ARTS Sanibel Island, approximately 100 people turned out to hear from city officials about actions taken before, during and after Hurricane Irma, along with plans for the upcoming storm season. Following presentations by each department head, a question-and-answer session was held.
Hurricane season is recognized as June 1 through Nov. 30. This year, national forecasters are anticipating a storm season with “slightly above-average activity,” according to a recent report.
Drs. Philip Klotzbach and Michael M. Bell, with Colorado State University’s Tropical Meteorology Project, are predicting 14 named storms for the Atlantic basin, with seven of those reaching hurricane-level strength. Three are anticipated to become “major” hurricanes – a Category 3 storm or higher.
“There’s a vast hurricane history in Florida,” Dave Roberts, the city’s weather consultant, said.
On average, the island gets one direct hit – landfall within 60 miles – every nine years.
Typically, the most active hurricane months are listed in order of September, August, October and November. With the peak of season recognized as Sept. 10, he noted that they can happen any time.
“Hurricanes can happen any month out of the year,” Roberts said.
He described the impact El Nio and La Nia have on storm development.
In the case of El Nio, the Pacific Ocean warms up and the Atlantic cools down, making for less favorable conditions for Atlantic storms; they need a water temperature of at least 80 degrees. In the case of La Nia, the opposite occurs with the Atlantic warming up and the Pacific cooling down.
“It greatly impacts our hurricane season,” Roberts said.
There is some concern for a current La Nia effect, but forecasters are keeping an eye on it.
“We’re in a little bit of a La Nia right now,” he said. “We are paying attention to it.”
Roberts pointed out that there are many forecast models for hurricane tracking.
“A lot of them are not reliable, depending on the situation,” he said. “Every storm is unique.”
However, the city and its emergency team always plan for the “worst-case scenario.”
“We try to over-plan,” Roberts said.
Sanibel, as well as Captiva, are high-risk areas for storm surge.
“Storm surge is our biggest risk,” he said, explaining to the audience that 1 foot of rushing water can move a vehicle. “It can take you to the ground.”
On top of the rushing water will be crashing waves, due to the hurricane-force winds.
“It will do a ton of damage,” Roberts said, adding that it does not matter if 1 foot of surge is being predicted or if forecasters are calling for 3 to 5 feet. “It makes no difference. It’s still deadly.”
Police Chief William “Bill” Dalton reported that pre-Irma, police officials monitored the storm’s progress, sent a liaison to the Lee County Emergency Operations Center, began initial preparations for evacuations and deployed officers to the Alpha and Brave districts, which entailed splitting up the department’s manpower into two 12-hour shifts.
“That basically increases our coverage on the road,” he said.
During evacuations, the department took part in storm discussions with the Sanibel City Council, continued its enforcement efforts and provided security. After the storm had passed, police set up and manned the re-entry checkpoint, assisted recovery workers surveying damage to residential and commercial properties, and provided traffic assistance.
PUBLIC WORKS DEPARTMENT
Director Keith Williams reported that every storm and every storm response is different.
“Obviously as a barrier island, we take hurricane season very seriously,” he said. “Irma was a great test of our abilities, our skills and our preparations.”
Before the storm hit, staff gathered together and prepared a fleet of generators and equipment.
“So that we can respond as quickly as possible after the storm,” Williams said.
Staff also surveyed the island for any last-minute debris and such that could be collected.
“Public Works is some of the first people back on the island,” he said of the department’s post-storm response.
Staff spent the first 72 hours clearing downed trees to provide for safe access and passage.
“This was a very typical scene block after block after Irma,” Williams said.
The department then focused on picking up residential and commercial debris and vegetation. He reported that more than 171,000 cubic yards of debris had been picked up by Thanksgiving.
“Throughout all of this we try to keep the public notified,” Williams said.
NATURAL RESOURCES DEPARTMENT
Director James Evans reported that prior to the storm’s arrival, staff assists other departments.
“We’re really filling in where we’re needed,” he said.
Four full-time biologists also conducted pre-storm beach and erosion surveys and checked ongoing projects, like the city’s living shorelines, using drones and by going on foot. Liaisons were also sent to Fort Myers and stationed at the county’s EOC.
“We had several of our staff in different places throughout the storm,” Evans said.
During the storm, staff continued to track Irma. They also monitored the storm surge using the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation’s RECON Network, which is sensors set up in the Caloosahatchee.
Post-Irma, staff conducted post-storm beach and erosion inspections and took part in beach clean up and debris removal efforts. They also monitored the Lake Okeechobee discharges on the area. Because many of the weaker Australian pines fell during Hurricane Charley, not as many came down in Irma.
“The vegetation was much more resilient,” he said.
Building Official Harold Law explained that there is no start and stop date for preparations.
“We work on it year-round,” he said. “So they (buildings) will withstand hurricanes.”
Harold explained that there is a 40-member team made up of people with backgrounds in structural engineering or construction which train annually to be prepared for before and after a storm hits.
In the past, team members would examine each property and document by hand the post-storm conditions. The information would then have to be entered into a database for dissemination.
He noted that the process is now streamlined and available online instantaneously.
“We are prepped with the most cutting-edge equipment,” Law said. “You will be updated on the conditions of your property as they walk by them and evaluate them.”
INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY DEPARTMENT
Director Bert Smith explained that the city systems still based on-island are all backed up.
“We’ve moved a lot of our systems off Sanibel,” he said, adding that it keeps the data safe and things running when the island loses power.
Pre-Irma, staff set up a temporary city hall in a safe location and an off-island disaster location at Bell Tower in Fort Myers. Due to the storm’s extent, a secondary site was set up in North Fort Myers.
The IT team also served as the after-hours communications team.
“Our primary focus is to try and get dispatch up as quickly as possible,” Smith said, explaining that first responders and the first feet back on the island require it for post-storm recovery efforts.
During the question-and-answer session, some of the points raised by attendees included further explanation of storm surge, power restoration efforts and the evacuation decision-making process of city council. Others voiced problems about not being able to find updates during and after Irma.
The public was directed to the Sanibel Hurricane Hotline at 800-933-6093, which features updated recordings, and Code RED. Code RED is a rapid emergency notification system that people can sign up for online at www.mysanibel.com and they will receive emergency notifications on their cell phone.
The community was also encouraged to sign up for the city’s email list, also on the website.
Hurricane re-entry passes were available at the conclusion of the seminar.
For those unable to attend, the passes may also be obtained Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. from the Sanibel Police Department on the Second Floor of City Hall, at 800 Dunlop Road.
A video of the seminar will be available online at www.mysanibel.com at a later date.