Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, in Miami, brought this reminder to residents: “A barrier island is not a place to be during a hurricane — period.”
It was June 2005, and Mayfield was speaking at the Longboat Key, Lido Key, St. Armands Key Chamber of Commerce’s Disaster Preparedness Seminar. It was before the infamous hurricanes of 2005: Katrina, Rita and Wilma, to name a few.
At the time, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) was predicting an “above-normal” Atlantic hurricane season for the year, forecasting 12 to 15 tropical storms, with seven to nine of those becoming hurricanes.
But, despite the frightening forecast, Mayfield brought a comforting statistic: Before Hurricane Charley made landfall near Sanibel Island on Aug. 13, 2004, 90% of Longboaters had evacuated.
This year, officials are predicting another year of above-average hurricane activity. In April, the Colorado State University Tropical Meteorology Project released a report estimating that 2010 will have 15 named storms, eight of which will become hurricanes.
As of Tuesday, May 25 — one week before the official start of hurricane season June 1 — a low-pressure system between the Bahamas and Bermuda had a 20% chance of becoming a tropical cyclone formation, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Just one storm could change the Key forever, but, so far, Longboat has had its share of luck. Here’s a look back at the active hurricane season of 2005 as reported in The Longboat Observer.
Tropical Storm Arlene
A high-pressure cell between the storm and southwest coast of Florida meant that Tropical Storm Arlene was unlikely to come close to Longboat Key. But the town wasn’t taking any chances. On Saturday, June 11, an extra ambulance and two paramedics were on duty. That day, Longboat Key experienced more than 2 inches of rain, 35 mph winds and minor flooding. As predicted, Arlene didn’t cause any major damage on the island.
A month-and-a-half after Arlene sounded the alarm on hurricane season, storm surge from Hurricane Dennis menaced Longboat Key, particularly the north end. Longbeach Village streets temporarily became rivers on Saturday, July 10.
Although Dennis stayed 150 miles offshore from the Key, approximately 6 inches of water seeped into Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant & Pub, and although the restaurant sustained little damage, Joe Rogers, who was manager at the time, had trouble getting rid of the seaweed, fish and horseshoe crabs that littered the parking lot and dock in the aftermath. Mote Marine Laboratory officials estimated that 75% of turtle nests were lost in the storm.
But, despite the storm, some critters fared well: The Village peacocks situated themselves above the water line on lawns and pecked at bits of food that washed up on driveways.
By the next week, it was apparent that Dennis had damaged the beach near Longbeach and the North Shore Road beach access area, which was already thinned from the prior year’s storms. Engineers initially estimated that 15,000 to 20,000 cubic yards of sand had washed away. That number was eventually raised to 50,000.
Hurricane Katrina made headlines when it swept through New Orleans in the final days of August. But Katrina went easy on Longboat Key, causing only minimal erosion to its beaches. When the hurricane struck, Longboat’s beaches were in the midst of a $21 million renourishment project, one that was already delayed because one of the barges being used to dredge sand had been taken into the Port of Tampa for minor repairs.
Although Longboaters were grateful that they dodged Katrina’s wrath, they stepped up to help those who were impacted. Whitney Beach Plaza co-owner Dawn diLorenzo immediately began collecting donations and supplies, and Mar Vista peeled the dollars off of its walls to send to victims.
Then, when Longboat Key Police Officer Dean Greathouse traveled to Gautier, Miss., with his church group to volunteer, he called Police Chief Al Hogle to tell him about the devastation. Hogle led an effort to collect T-shirts, boots and pants, so that police officers could change out of the tattered uniforms they had been wearing for more than a week. DiLorenzo coordinated the effort to collect supplies, which were then loaded onto a U-Haul trailer. The supplies were driven to Gautier by Longboat Limousine co-owner Jimmy Seaton.
Hurricane Rita tore through the Caribbean without threatening Longboat Key. But as the storm churned Sept. 19, town officials discussed what would happen if a major storm struck Longboat Key. Some of the facts discussed at the meeting:
• A Category 4 storm could bring tidal surges higher than the roof of Town Hall. Storm surge could reach 10 feet, inundating the Key and flooding parts of Sarasota as far east as downtown. The worst damage would come if the surge began to push back across the island and started to wash back into the Gulf, because if the water carried cars and trees, they would become battering rams.
• Town officials estimated that it would take at least seven to eight hours for Longboaters to leave the island.
• Department heads drafted a post-storm plan for Longboat Key in which Longboat Key firefighter/paramedics would return to the island after winds were below 45 mph. Town Manager Bruce St. Denis estimated that if a major storm were to hit, it would likely be a week or two before residents could return.
Longboat Key was on the north end of Wilma’s eye, and town officials weren’t taking any chances. Wilma was the 12th hurricane of the season and tied the record for the most hurricanes in a season, set in 1969. At 10 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 23, Hogle told reporters at a press conference that all of the island was under mandatory evacuation. By 10 p.m. — 12 hours later — Gulf of Mexico Drive was virtually empty.
But, once again, Longboat Key was spared, as Wilma made landfall in Mexico and the Caribbean, and, then, the eastern coast of Florida in Jupiter.
Surveying the minimal damage Monday, Oct. 24, Public Works Director Juan Florensa said, “We are lucky. We dodged a big bullet. We have been so lucky, but when will out luck run out?”
If You Go
Hurricane Preparation and Safety Seminar
What: Longboat Island Chapel is partnering with the Longboat Key Police Department and Longboat Key Fire Rescue for this safety seminar.
When: 10 a.m. to noon Thursday, June 10
Where: Longboat Island Chapel, 6200 Gulf of Mexico Drive
Contact Robin Hartill at [email protected].