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East County Wednesday, Jul. 14, 2021 4 months ago

Tropical Storm Elsa prepares eastern Manatee County for rest of hurricane season

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Emergency prep teams hope residents remain alert despite storm's limited impact.
by: Liz Ramos and Brendan Lavell

Panther Ridge Preserve’s Steve Lescher was living in Punta Gorda in 2004 when three hurricanes came through Southwest Florida.

Hurricane Charley was the first hurricane that Lescher had experienced since moving from Missouri to Florida in 1995.

“Hurricane Charley totally devastated our town,” Lescher said. “That storm came up in three hours. It was never supposed to come anywhere near Punta Gorda. It was supposed to hit Tampa.”

Still, Lescher was prepared. 

He put up hurricane screens and moved his plants and outside furniture indoors. He put a ladder inside the closet where he; his wife, Sandy; and his dog sat as the hurricane passed in case the house began to flood and they needed to get to the attic.

After living without power for 17 days and seeing the destruction a hurricane could do to a home, Lescher’s motto is to always be prepared for tropical storms and hurricanes, whether or not you expect the intensity to be significant.

When he moved to Panther Ridge in 2006, Lescher bought a generator that could power his home in case they ever lost power, especially during a tropical storm or hurricane.

Lescher always goes shopping for food and water at the beginning of summer to have enough food to last his family five days in case a storm hits.

Despite sporadic flooding from Elsa, East County generally was unscathed by the latest big storm to pass through. Lescher worries that people might not take future storms seriously after Elsa didn’t wreak the predicted havoc with the area.

“It’s Mother Nature, and anything can happen,” Lescher said. “My fear is people won’t prepare because (Elsa) turned out to be nothing. My wish is people prepare for every storm like it will be devastating. If you’re prepared for the worst and get nothing, that’s wonderful. It’s a blessing when we don’t get it, but we have to be prepared in case we do.”

When Waterside’s Carole Jesiolowski was living in a condo on Longboat Key in 2017, she was expecting the worst as Hurricane Irma made its way to Florida.

Longboat Key was being evacuated, so Jesiolowski made her way to Atlanta, which she said was the closest city she could find with a hotel room as the hurricane made its way up Florida’s west coast.

Upon her return to Longboat Key, she found downed trees and electrical lines, flooding, and no air conditioning in her building. It was enough to convince her to take every storm seriously.

“It was tough,” Jesiolowski said. “Every storm after that you watch a little more closely. You say you’re going to be more prepared, you’re going to make sure you have a place to go, and you have a plan already set ahead. You attend meetings the town holds on what to do in case of a hurricane. Until you experience it, you really don’t know.”

When Jesiolowski moved to Lakewood Ranch in 2019, one of the first household items she purchased was a generator.

She sees Elsa as a test run to make sure she is prepared this hurricane season.

She had her generator, water and food and did a mental checklist of people she knows and how she could help them if needed. She was prepared.

“I just kind of enjoyed watching the rain and wind, and the power of that is pretty awesome to see,” Jesiolowski said. “I was feeling a little self assured that I was going to be OK.”

Water pools underneath the playground Wednesday morning at Greenbrook Adventure Park.

After Elsa passed, Lakewood Ranch Community Emergency Response Team President Jim Emanuelson said East County residents tend to let their guard down easily when it comes to hurricane season.

Even though Elsa was somewhat of a false alarm for East County, he said the storm should serve as a reminder that people should keep their guard up. He said it is impossible to know how big the next storm will be.

“These storms, when they get big, they can be a risk to your safety and maybe even your life,” Emanuelson said.

Manatee County Emergency Management Chief Steve Litschauer said any size of storm so early in hurricane season gives people a preview of what might follow. He said the quickness Elsa went from a tropical storm to a hurricane and then steered toward Manatee County should be a reminder of how things can change in a hurry.

He hopes residents use Elsa to remember that the time to prepare for hurricanes is at the start of hurricane season, not when a storm is already on its way. He said waiting until the last minute is dangerous. Hurricane season runs through Nov. 30.

If Elsa sparked some concern, he said that could be a positive.

“Hopefully, if they waited, now they’ve collected their water and their canned goods,” Litschauer said. “Going through those steps and getting ready, that’s the biggest thing.”

In the past, Litschauer said early storms tend to convince people to be prepared for what follows, even if the storm causes little damage. As an example, he said that people might be testing their generators for the first time this year.

Emanuelson said East County residents tend to think about the next storm when even a weak one passes. Lakewood Ranch’s Community Emergency Response Team has noticed spikes in volunteers after early season storms in the past.

The county’s Emergency Management Division doesn’t have a season as it prepares for hurricanes all year round. Workers go through exercises where they imagine scenarios and explain what Plan A, B, C, D and so forth would be. However, Litschauer said it doesn’t quite compare to the week’s worth of work they go through when a storm is on its way.

Water flows into a drain outside a Myakka City property along County Road 675 on Wednesday morning.

“It’s almost like if you were in a production or a play,” Litschauer said. “That first practice can be compared to opening day. Although we go through the exercises, it’s still not the pressure of my phone’s going off, the notifications are going off, things like that. In an exercise, you do it, but you’re not under those time restraints: long days, so-and-so is on vacation, so-and-so is sick, this piece of equipment is not working. It gives that real life.” 

Litschauer said Elsa gave them the chance to work together and communicate with the Public Works Department, Utilities Department, Florida Department of Health in Manatee County and, of course, law enforcement officers.

Aside from reviewing plans and working out kinks in the process, the Emergency Management Division had the chance to work on some new parts of its process because of Elsa. For example, it was the first time the county used an electronic registration process at its shelters. The county finished setting up the electronic system the night before Elsa hit.

At special needs shelters, Elsa gave the Emergency Management Division workers the opportunity to unload, test and set up equipment that hadn’t been used in more than six months.

“It could be working the day you put it in (storage), and when you bring it out, it might not,” Litschauer said. “This allows us to tune and test that equipment early in the season.”

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