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Sarasota Thursday, May 31, 2018 4 years ago

Hurricane Irma taught Sarasota-area residents a lot

Plenty of people are better prepared for the next storm, thanks to 2017's big one.

It had been years since the Sarasota area had to deal with a real threat from a major hurricane. When Irma started to look more menacing, plenty of residents had little experience to work with. Some fled hundreds of miles, some stayed, some rode out the storm with friends, neighbors or at a local shelter. Through it all, they learned a lot and got started thinking of the next time. Hurricane season begins on June 1 and runs through November.

We asked around the area to ask about residents' stories and how they dealt with Irma. 

Here are their stories:

Storm brings a sense of community 

New College of Florida professor Brendan Goff, a Michigan native, had never experienced a hurricane. His sister, however, had lived through several and urged him to make the drive out of Florida to stay with her in Mobile, Ala.

Goff ultimately made the last minute decision to do so, but two days before Hurricane Irma hit Sarasota, he was prepared to ride out the storm in his home in the Indian Beach-Sapphire Shores neighborhood. He packed up all his important papers, cleared his yard of possible debris and put up hurricane shutters left by the previous homeowners.

When he went to return a drill he borrowed from a neighbor, he found a whole crew of neighbors working together to get plywood ready for homes not yet prepared for the storm. He jumped right in to help his fellow neighbors. The small team received emails and calls from nearby residents all day asking for help. By the end of the day, they helped board up at least 5 homes.

“The storm brought out an intense sense of community out of us,” Goff said. “It was a centripetal force that was pulling people together.”

For Goff, the experience reinforced how fortunate he was to have had hurricane shutters readily on hand and was glad he did not find himself in a situation scrambling to find and secure plywood onto his windows.

East County was far enough to go

Ryan Hartford Stanley and her two young children evacuated from their home in Paver Park, Sarasota to a hotel near University Park. Her husband had been assigned to cover Hurricane Irma in south Florida.

She hauled a large bin filled with food and hurricane supplies into their hotel room, turning part of the room into a makeshift kitchen. Her family made plans to hunker down in the bathroom or underneath the hotel’s stairwell if the storm took a turn for the worse.

The hotel went on lockdown and the storm came and passed. “We didn’t hear anything,” Stanley said. “It was as if nothing happened.”

For Stanley, one of the most stressful parts of the hurricane was the aftermath. A huge Java plum tree from her neighbor’s yard had fallen onto her home and was suspended by power lines. Had those power lines not been there, Stanley said the tree most likely would have gone through her roof, striking through the bedroom where she and her family would have been had they not evacuated.

She needed to get to her homeowner's insurance policy information but was afraid to enter her home. “If I had a copy of that document with me, it would have been easier,” Stanley said. Her insurance company later told her it would have been best to avoid entering the home. 

Get out while you can

Ned Jewitt wanted to leave Longboat Key but didn’t.

As a secretary for his homeowner’s association, Jewitt said he felt obligated to ensure his neighbor’s homes were prepared for the storm, which had been predicted to be one of the worst in a long time for the west coast of Florida.

He actually tried to leave the island three times, but the gas stations were few and far between, Jewitt said.

“Had I not had the responsibility that I had, I would have gone inland and probably would have gone right across the state to palm beach,” Jewitt said.

If he could have done anything different, it would have been that: leaving the island. It's not worth staying and relying on emergency services if it can be avoided, Jewitt said.

“When the order comes down that everyone should be off the island at a certain time, you should be off the island. The game is set, you follow the orders. I just happened to have gotten trapped,” Jewitt said.

A bit of vacation

Jesse Coleman and his family checked the radar the morning before Hurricane Irma was scheduled to hit, and decided instantly to evacuate then and there.

Jesse, Ciera, Juniper and Calvin Coleman in their car with all their supplies. Photo courtesy Ciera Coleman.

“We saw the radar and we were pretty terrified,” he said. “It looked like it was definitely a Category 5, heading straight toward us.”

So he and his wife Ciera packed up their 6-year-old son Calvin, their 4-year-old daughter Juniper and their dog, and high-tailed it to Georgia. They stayed in a cabin in the mountains with some friends.

“It turned into a little bit of a vacation,” Jesse Coleman said.

When they came back — a trip that took two days as they avoided the interstate — they found a huge tree had fallen on their home, but there was no lasting damage.

Jesse Coleman recommends that this season, people stay flexible.

“I think that’s probably the one thing we really learned from this,” he said. “It can change directions at any point, so being ready and being willing to change direction at any point to stay safe.”

Impromptu shelter

Ed McCrane.

As Sarasota County Emergency Management Chief Ed McCrane tried to prepare the entire county to deal with the huge storm, he also had to prepare his own home.

When he returned the Saturday before Irma hit Sarasota to finish putting hurricane shutters on his windows, he was surprised to find that they were already done. His wife told him that their neighbors had done it. McCrane went over to thank them, and realized they didn’t have shutters on their own home.

That was the first family that was invited to ride out the storm at the McCrane’s.

“Initially my wife was going to be home alone with the two dogs,” he said. “By the time it was over, there were 10 people and five or six dogs.”

In the end, a family of four and their dog from across the street, a family friend, McCrane’s son-in-law and his dog, his brother-in-law and his wife, son and dog, and his mother-in-law all rode out the storm together, sharing supplies and staying safe in McCrane’s home.

“We offered it to others, but they said they were fine,” he said.

Hotel hangout 

Being a self-proclaimed scaredy cat worked in favor of Mac Spitzer and her friends and family during Hurricane Irma.

Before Longboat Key residents were put under mandatory evacuation orders, the Spitzers decided to make hotel reservations the Monday before Irma hit.

They packed water, food and flashlights, something Spitzer said a lot of people didn’t have.

“You would be surprised how many people didn’t bring them,” she said.

Spitzer, who lived in Massachusetts, had experienced hurricanes before, so she felt prepared. However, she said she thinks everyone needs to have hurricane shutters installed as they prepare for future hurricane seasons.

“If the glass breaks, lets say, above us, and there are people above us that don’t have shutters, then we’re in trouble,” she said.

Upon returning to Longboat Key, Spitzer, likes others who lived behind the Bay Isles gets, couldn’t get home as soon as expected due to downed trees. But being patient, and having a small happy hour in a parking lot, got her group through.

Overall, she said it was a positive experience given the circumstances.

Key West isn't what it's cracked up to be

Jocelyn Loomis lives in a quiet little enclave of tropical-appearing homes near University Parkway and began worrying about her surroundings as Hurricane Irma began looking more and more as it was heading this way.

 “I like the style of Key West but not the idea of living hundreds of miles out in the ocean with only one road to get back to the land, so I live here,’’ she said.

Her home came equipped with window shutters and other safety gear, so she and her dogs decided staying put was the right thing to do. “I mean, there for a while, I'm not sure I knew where I would go.’’

In the end, the skylight on the roof didn’t leak, the screened porch didn’t fail and the power, well, it did fail but for not nearly as long as that of many of her co-workers.

Still, as the 2018 season begins, she's not totally sure she knows what to expect.

“I really don’t think we experienced a hurricane,’’ she said, making air quotes around the H-word. “I still don’t know what I’d do if a real one came right to us. I’m afraid I wouldn’t decide until the last minute.’’

Holding down the fort

Having just returned home from a trip to Alaska the day before Hurricane Irma hit the area, Bob and Shannon Gault weren’t left with much time to evacuate alongside their Longboat Key neighbors.

Bob Gault file photo

They had to secure their potted plants around their home, tie down their boats and make sure their dogs had everything they needed.

Plus, the roads were backed up as everyone was trying to leave.

So, the couple and their three dogs decided to stay put and make their home as ready as possible.

“Our house was built in 2007, and it’s up to code and designed to handle a category five, so we were pretty comfortable that we would be safe, and we have a generator, which was helpful for five days,” Bob Gault said.

The Gaults had to use a wet vac to stop water from coming under their sliding door tracks, but aside from that, their house remained unscathed.

Gault said that had they been home earlier, they would have evacuated.

“It’s loud, and it’s serious wind,” Gault said.

Snowbird View 

They might not have had first-hand experience with Hurricane Irma, but snowbirds still had wait and watch where the hurricane went.

Paul Ahern, a winter Beachplace Condominium resident, said the installation of hurricane-proof sliding doors on his balcony and hurricane-proof windows around his unit, kept his condo safe.

He said changing to hurricane-proof doors and windows is an option for Beachplace residents and estimates that 30% of residents have them.

“They stopped projectiles that could be flying in the air, so that’s pretty much all you can do,” he said.

Aside from damaged trees and the beach losing sand, Ahern’s property and others in Beachplace survived.

In the days following Irma, Ahern spoke to the Longboat Observer and said he had every T.V. on in his New England home monitoring the storm.

He said, though, that hurricanes come with the territory of living near the coast.

“A hurricane’s a hurricane,” he said. “What you have to accept when you buy a place in Florida, is that a hurricane is coming up from the Caribbean Islands into the Gulf and can do a lot of damage.”

That's what shelters are for

Ellison Watson and his wife, Flora waited too long. 

As they watched Hurricane Irma's forecast path wobble from east to west and back again, they said they caught a case of indecision and did nothing. 

"In the end, we wanted to leave but had nowhere to go,'' Ellison said. 

Family members were too far away. Hotels were booked, even if they could figure out a safe location. So, on a Saturday afternoon, they packed up a few keepsakes and headed for Gulf Gate Elementary, not far from their home. It was the first time they visited the school. "We were happy we were there.''

Flora said they're biggest worry was what they'd find when they got home. They rested and tried to relax in the shelter and ultimately went home on Sunday afternoon to find . . . "everything exactly as we left it. We had even forgotten to bring the trash cans in, and the were right where they we supposed to be.''

A coincidental vacation 

Bob Bunting watched hurricane Irma from Canada.

He’d been there on a vacation he’d planned months in advance — but he would have left even if he didn’t have a trip planned for the storm, Bunting said. There’s no reason to take a chance with something as powerful as Irma was, Bunting said.

“The hardest part was waiting for it to happen once you were ready,” Bunting said. “It was a nail biter.”

The former NOAA and University Corporation for Atmospheric Research climate scientist said he was torn: He admired the storm for its might but feared it for its potential impact with Longboat Key.

“It was, on the one hand, fascinating and awesome watching something that powerful and organized, just an amazing natural event,” Bunting said. “And at the same time being fearful and scared that people would be left on Longboat Key who might not make it and that our town could be devastated and that it could be months before you can even come back.”

Update: This article has been edited to correct the list of hurricane shelter locations in Sarasota County.

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