- June 25, 2014
Longboat Key Fire Rescue Chief Paul Dezzi and other town department heads prepared for Hurricane Porter’s pending arrival July 10 and every scenario that comes with a Category 1 storm with sustained winds of 85 mph that was poised for a direct hit on Longboat Key.
“It was coming straight over the middle of the island,” Dezzi said. “We had to take immediate action and make the right decisions.”
The storm, of course, was fake. Hurricane Porter was named after Porter Road, where Sarasota’s County new Emergency Operations Center sits southeast of Longboat Key in Sarasota.
But the exercise was needed to keep town officials up to speed on both town and country hurricane preparation plans during at a time when the Key and the region hasn’t faced a serious hurricane threat since 2005.
“We have a lot of new town employees who have never faced a storm threat out here,” Dezzi said. “We need to stay prepared and be ready.”
In January, Town Manager Dave Bullock charged Dezzi with overseeing and updating the emergency management procedures of the town. The effort involved working with other town department heads and emergency management officials in both Manatee and Sarasota counties.
“Everybody in the town has a role to play if a storm heads this way,” Dezzi said. “We have to have every detail in place, including who is responsible for grabbing paper files in offices we don’t want to lose to flooding to knowing who the last person to shut the lights out on the Key at the south fire station is when we evacuate.”
Dezzi said he worries the town and other municipalities and counties are suffering from what he calls “hurricane amnesia.”
“It’s been so long since we’ve experienced a storm event,” Dezzi said. “We can’t be complacent. The hurricane plan is a training book for employees and everyone has a role to play.”
For an inside view of how the town prepares for a storm, Dezzi walks us through what occurs as Hurricane Porter approaches the island.
The Longboat Key Fire Rescue chief holds a management team meeting with his deputy chiefs to prepare for the storm’s pending arrival. Department heads' hurricane plans are activated, and firefighter/paramedics begin inspecting hurricane shutters on the firehouses and ordering hurricane supplies such as extra bottled water and extra medical supplies. Fire trucks and ambulances are topped off with gas and oxygen tanks are filled. Deputy fire chiefs also begin talking with and coordinating meeting schedules for the emergency operations centers in both Manatee and Sarasota counties. Staff assigned to attend meetings at both operations centers report to both centers. The town’s CodeRED notification system, which alerts residents to evacuations and other notifications via cellphones, is also tested and ready to start sending out alerts. And Key residents who are on a special needs list because they need help getting off the island if there’s a mandatory evacuation, are called, and their whereabouts are confirmed as plans to remove them from the island are made.
Dezzi Byte: “We really start moving at 72 hours. The threat is real. We’re calling residents who need help. We’re on the phone constantly with each other and county officials. And preparing for a potential evacuation.”
As weather reports show the storm zeroing in on Longboat Key, emergency management officials from both counties will call for an evacuation. The evacuation of handicapped residents is already under way, and firefighter/paramedics are doing an informative sweep of the island telling all residents there’s a mandatory evacuation and it’s not safe to ride out the storm. Hurricane plans at the town employee level are underway. Files are being transported to safe mainland locations that include State College of Florida in Bradenton and second story dedicated office space at Sarasota City Hall. Off-duty firefighter/paramedics are placed on standby for extra duty.
Dezzi Byte: “The storm is getting close. Employees are told to activate the emergency plan we have. Employees receive time to secure their homes and families. The families of on-duty personnel receive help from other employees to prepare for the storm. We’re getting ready to move our marine fire patrol boat off the island and place it at Sara Bay Marina in Sarasota. Firefighters prepare locations at Sarasota County Fire Station 2 on Waldemere Street and Blake Medical Center in Bradenton where they will ride out the storm off the island.”
Meetings with emergency officials in both counties are being held constantly as assigned employees set up computers there and relay the latest information back to town employees. Off-duty firefighter/paramedics are called in to help with a mandatory evacuation that is underway. Sweeps of the entire town are made to make sure residents are leaving the island.
Dezzi Byte: “We’re driving the island, talking with property managers and making sure people are leaving. Town buildings are being secured. We’re making sure people are taking the storm serious and are leaving.”
Another sweep of the island is made to make sure residents are evacuating. Any remaining town assets and building are secured. Town computers and technology equipment is relocated to secure spots at Sarasota City Hall and State College of Florida. Firefighter/paramedic crews (one heading to Sarasota and one to Bradenton) leave the island before landfall.
“Firefighters leave the island anywhere from zero to 12 hours before the storm hits. We’re the last to leave, and we can’t come back to save you when the wind hits and you need help. If you see the taillights of the fire truck riding off the island from your window, it’s too late for us to help you. I can’t stress enough how important it is to leave the island before we do. You’re not safe in a high-rise when the wind kicks up and you lose power.”
Hurricane Porter has split the island in half with a 10-foot storm surge of Gulf water.
Longboat Pass Bridge has collapsed but New Pass Bride is deemed safe for travel. Once water recedes on St. Armands, an emergency team that involves staff from both town, city of Sarasota and county employees begins clearing a path to get back to the Key. Another team from Manatee County works to create safe passage eventually to the Key on the north end. Trees and debris are moved and cut out of the way to clear a path as rescue teams begin calling out and searching for anyone that needs help. The police and fire chiefs receive a helicopter tour of the island to assess the damage. Once Public Works employees clear a path and it’s deemed safe to get back onto the island (which could take days or weeks depending on how many bridges are collapsed and how flooded the Key is), public and property managers will be allowed back onto the Key once they pass checkpoints mandating they show identification with a valid island address. Key residents, though, will only be allowed to stay on the island during daytime hours until power is restored and an evening curfew for the island is lifted.
Dezzi Byte: “We will have no idea how bad it its or even if we can get back onto the island until emergency crews clear a path and assess the damage. There could be people on roofs to avoid flooded homes and people dependent on oxygen who have no power. If the island is mostly under water, we won’t even be able to operate emergency crews on the island. If we can’t access the island by land, we’re using airboats to assess the damage and help people. We also have hired contractors to help move debris but it might take awhile for them to get to us. The problem we have is we are a barrier island surrounded by other barrier islands that also need a path cleared."