Longboaters got lucky when, in 2004, Hurricane Charley, which had its sights set on Longboat Key, made a hard right turn into Port Charlotte instead. Evacuated Longboaters were able to return home the next day.
But Longboat Key officials warn that if a powerful storm did reach the shores of Longboat Key, residents would not be able to return to their homes for weeks.
Town Manager Bruce St. Denis, Police Chief Al Hogle, Fire Rescue Chief Rich Dickerson and hurricane public information officer Susan Phillips recently sat down with The Longboat Observer to explain how the re-entry process would work for an island that must deal with bureaucratic hurdles of two counties.
The morning after a storm hits, Longboat Key police and fire rescue crews are the first responders to the island (most likely from boat or helicopter) to see if anyone who might have attempted to ride out the storm is hurt.
At that time, St. Denis said, town staff will attempt to get an aerial survey of the island, courtesy of a helicopter the town has on retainer with one of its hurricane cleanup crews, to assess the damage.
But the problem, St. Denis said, is that cleanup crews trying to get to Longboat Key must wait until communities to the south (Bird Key, Lido Key, St. Armands Key) or north of Longboat Key (Bradenton Beach) are in sufficient shape before getting onto Longboat.
Bridge repairs, or the lack of bridges on either side of the island, would delay a cleanup of and return to the island.
Residents also will not be allowed back onto the island without a form of identification that lists their Longboat Key address or an item such as a property tax bill can be properly identified.
But they will also have to pass checkpoints in either Manatee or Sarasota counties before making it to the town’s shores.
Sarasota County will issue wristbands at a checkpoint to be determined, while those entering from Manatee County will be issued automobile hangtags for re-entry procedures at the State College of Florida, in Bradenton.
To speed the process along, Hogle said the wristbands and hangtags would be honored in either county.
But a powerful storm that does a lot of damage could mean that a Longboater could not get back onto the island to survey property for up to two weeks or longer, St. Denis said.
And everyone will have to pass several checkpoints on the other barrier islands first.
“The bottom line is that until communities like Bird Key, St. Armands Key and Bradenton Beach are clear, Longboaters can’t come back,” St. Denis said.
Hogle and Dickerson also warned of long lines.
“Credential sites will be advertised and organized, but Longboat Key residents will be sitting in lines for long times until it’s their turn to move forward,” Hogle said.
St. Denis said it would be wise for Longboaters to not attempt to move through the lines until they receive official word that Longboat is open again.
Once residents are allowed back on the island, it will most likely only be until dusk.
“The first visit gives residents an idea of what they lost,” St. Denis said. “Later, it will be announced when they can return with contractors to rebuild their homes.”
EVACUATION COMES FIRST
In the event of a major storm, a decision to require mandatory evacuation of the Key would be made 24 to 38 hours before it arrives.
Town Manager Bruce St. Denis said that town officials attend both Manatee and Sarasota County emergency planning meetings to be sure when both counties plan to close schools, which paves the way for barrier-island residents to head to shelters on the mainland.
Both counties have to make a joint decision whether to evacuate the two-county island, even if one county is preparing to evacuate while the other is not.
Once an evacuation decision for the island is made, police officers begin alerting residents that a mandatory evacuation order is in place.
And St. Denis urges Key residents not to contemplate riding out a storm when an evacuation order is made.
“Before the storm comes, we are leaving, and if you make the decision to stay, you are on your own and we are not coming back to get you until after the storm has come by,” St. Denis said.