Bay County's emergency management director says a lot of what happened in Mexico Beach in 2018 could happen here.
It’s a common enough weather report in the middle of summer.
A tropical depression in the Gulf of Mexico or Caribbean Sea just strengthened to winds of 39 mph and gained a name. TV weathermen are jumping up and down, showing jumbled projections, running file footage of previous storms and telling you to pay attention now and for the next days.
Meh, you say. That’s nothing.
Joby Smith, the Emergency Management division chief in Bay County, begs to differ and points to a town in his county, Mexico Beach, as the reason.
Speaking to a packed house last week at the Disaster Preparedness Seminar, sponsored by the town of Longboat Key and the Longboat Key Chamber of Commerce, Smith said his county went from initial concern about Hurricane Michael in 2018 to near total devastation in about 73 hours, ordering the evacuation of 100,000 in the process. About 20,000 listened, he said.
About $661 million in damages later, Smith is making the rounds telling his community’s story with hopes that others will listen.
He said Mexico Beach’s vulnerabilities are similar to those of Longboat Key and said the town can learn a lot from his experience.
“This is one of the prettier places I’ve been to,’’ he said. “I hope it gets to stay they way.’’
Smith was joined by Sarasota Emergency Management Chief Ed McCrane and Manatee Emergency Management Chief Steve Litschauer in addressing the approximately 130 or so people who came out to here the presentations.
Merchants from around the area also displayed their storm-related goods and services.
What about Irma?
Litschauer compared Hurricane Michael’s effects from the Panhandle to local geography. Had that Category 5 hurricane struck the Longboat Key area, 100 mph winds would have been felt as far inland as Arcadia.
He urged everyone avoid complacency and forget about what they think they know about past storms.
“If you have a T-shirt that says I survived Hurricane Irma from two years ago, you didn’t,” he said. “It wasn’t a hurricane when it came through here. It was a good storm.”
Leaving or staying?
McCrane said there should be no question if an evacuation is ordered. The question should be where to go. He advised people first consider friends or family outside the storm-danger zone. While Manatee County maintains 28 shelters and Sarasota maintains 11, he said they should be considered only as a last resort, if all other options aren’t working.
Sarasota plans to open all of them at once, while Manatee would likely open its range of shelters in phases, and it doesn’t matter where you live.
“You want to make sure an evacuation center is a lifeboat, not the Love Boat,” he said, adding most offer about 20 square feet per evacuee, and little in terms of creature comforts. Still, though, he said staying behind is a dangerous proposition.
“You may not be able to leave,” he said. “If we lose one of these bridges, any of them, we can’t get out here without a helicopter or boats. You might be stranded.”
Police Chief Pete Cumming, in one of about 20 tabletop displays set up around the room, explained how residents would be allowed to return to the island after an ordered evacuation. The town’s three-tiered system is designed to ensure conditions are safe enough for residents to return.
According to the police department, it’s important to bring such documents as a photo ID or other proof of Longboat Key residence or employment.
Tier I: The first people allowed to enter the town after a storm will be town employees, authorized federal, state and local agencies who need access to the town to ensure restoration of critical systems such as water service, power, roads and communications. The purpose of Tier I responders is to make sure the town is safe enough for even first responders to operate.
Tier II: The next wave of people allowed to enter after Tier I responders will represent private and public agencies tasked with actually restoring critical needs that will make the return of residents smoother and safer. Among those who will be allowed to enter will be relief workers, health care workers, insurance agents, representatives of the banking organizations on the island, food suppliers and leaders of individual hotels and condominium organizations. Identifying letters or other credentials will be confirmed before those workers will be allowed on the island.
Tier III: Once an assessment of the town is made about the threat to public safety and the availability of sustainable living conditions, residents who can identify themselves and other business representatives will be allowed to return.
At the point of allowing Tier II and Tier III people to return, stickers will be issued to those with confirmed identification to allow easier back and forth travel.
One dining option
Meals in the midst of a power failure can be tricky. Without a little planning, or a ready-to-go barbecue grill, Vienna sausages and cold Spaghetti-Os can get old pretty quickly.
Enter Chef Chris Reed of the Lazy Lobster with a practical, (and a bit tongue-in-cheek, solution).
Reed and Lazy Lobster owner Michael Garey drew attention among the event’s participants with a meal that was creative, tasty and possible without such staples as refrigeration or a stove: “Disaster Ready Spam Sliders,” samples of which were served to those who attended the event.
Garey said it was important to note that most of the ingredients were easily stored for weeks, if not longer. That’s key when preparing for hurricane season.
The sandwiches, served on King’s Hawaiian rolls, consisted of sliced Spam, brushed with barbecue sauce, topped with crispy fried onions and dill pickles.
Questions and answers
What about bridges? As some point before a storm, draw bridges will be locked down to prevent damage and will be closed to vessels that would otherwise need them opening.
Would Gulf of Mexico Drive ever be converted to one way? McCrane: “Typically, unless it’s a last-second, everybody-get-out, you’re not going to have a big issue with traffic flow. We give you a lot of time. With Irma, we gave you 36 hours. It’s very difficult to one-way a road, unless you have enough barricades or officers to block every entrance.”
Is it safe to assume to evacuate to a hotel east of Interstate 75? It would be, but consider there are probably 2 million people in the Tampa Bay area with the same idea. So make reservations early. And do a little homework about staffing, hurricane preparations, pets.