Officials, residents brace for the worst from Hurricane Irma
With the storm's path still uncertain, Sarasota is diligently preparing for Hurricane Irma.
ByDavid Conway & Cassidy Alexander
| 6:00 a.m. September 7, 2017
With a historically intense hurricane moving through the Atlantic and headed toward Florida, Sarasota County Emergency Management Chief Ed McCrane had to strike a balance between stressing the urgent need to prepare but avoiding a sense of hysteria.
The size and force of Hurricane Irma, a category 5 storm, was enough to panic even longtime residents. With the devastation of Hurricane Harvey still fresh in the public’s mind, McCrane knew people would be worried.
So, at a news conference earlier this week, McCrane hit the important notes for residents. Be prepared. Have supplies for at least 72 hours. Make a plan to evacuate, and then be sure to actually leave if you’re instructed to do so.
But he also wanted to provide a sense of confidence as the region undertakes the necessary precautions.
“There’s no need to panic,” McCrane said. “We will get through these storms. This is not Harvey.”
This was, in part, a technical distinction between the two storms. Harvey was a slower-moving storm that subjected Texas to sustained rains. Irma, with winds already measured at 185 mph, would hit hard but move quicker, McCrane predicted.
A day later, at a Wednesday news conference, McCrane said updated forecasts brought good news for Sarasota. If Irma curved east, as forecast, the county could get about 3.5 inches of rain through Sept. 13 — much closer to normal weather than a catastrophic storm.
Still, at both the county and city levels, officials began preparing for the worst early this week. McCrane said even if Irma goes up Florida’s east coast, emergency managers expect there could be a 6-foot storm surge for the west coast because of the hurricane’s size.
The county and city opened their emergency operations centers and worked to storm-proof the city as much as possible. The county prepared to declare a local state of emergency depending on the storm’s path, which McCrane said enabled officials to use state and national resources.
County staff worked to ensure drainage systems in flood-prone neighborhoods were clear of obstructions. The city also focused its efforts on vulnerable areas, planning to add sandbags along eroded portions of the Lido Key shoreline. Both governments were getting ready for potential evacuations.
“Governments are preparing as if this will be a major hurricane,” City Manager Tom Barwin said. “Residents should be doing that same self-preparation.”
On the move
If an evacuation were ordered, the barrier islands and bayfront neighborhoods would be the first to leave. Carl Shoffstall, president of the Lido Key Residents Association, said people in the area were anxious about the impending storm. Shoffstall said bayfront properties are vulnerable to even minor storms because of the waning Lido shoreline. The prospect of a strong hurricane making landfall nearby could be catastrophic.
“I don’t wish anything on the east coast, but hopefully that thing goes out into the Atlantic about 500, 600 miles and we all avoid it,” Shoffstall said.
Shoffstall also held out hope that, if an evacuation were ordered, residents would be able to successfully make it out of the Sarasota area. At the time of publication, the storm was expected to make landfall in south Florida on Sunday. Residents in those counties are already leaving, which means the interstates are congested even before the path of the storm is certain.
Even if Sarasota avoids the brunt of the storm, McCrane said residents should be prepared to feel the effects of evacuations to the south — and that Sarasota could serve as a host community for people seeking refuge. He asked residents to find alternate routes to work or their homes to avoid the interstate.
If you’re not in an emergency evacuation zone, you have the supplies you need and you are confident your home or structure can withstand hurricane conditions, McCrane said residents should feel comfortable staying in Sarasota.
He added some residents outside of evacuation zones should still find another place to stay. That includes people in mobile homes, those who are concerned about getting the medical attention they need or those who have concerns about the safety of the building in which they live.
Residents who evacuate should take their supplies with them, especially if they’re going to a county shelter. Although the county has 22 shelters available, shelters will only open on an as-needed basis. When that is announced, residents should be prepared to go to a location that may not be in their neighborhood.
Jesse Coleman lives with his wife and two children in a neighborhood off South Tamiami Trail. Irma will be the closest the family has come to a major hurricane.
“This is the first time it’s kind of gotten serious, where we’ve thought ‘Wow, this could get bad if we don’t do something,’ ” Coleman said.
The first-time homeowner has been getting ready for a few days — buying water, stockpiling cans of soup and preparing to board up his windows. Coleman said he’s been trying to let his kids know what to expect, too.
“It’s been pretty stressful,” he said. “I want to be prepared. We’re new homeowners, and getting all of our ducks in a row and figuring that all out and getting it all in place is something I’ve really never done before, so [we’re] trying to be responsible about that.”
Beginning Wednesday, the county handed out sandbags at three locations around Sarasota. However, because bags were handed out last week to combat flooding, resources were in short supply. McCrane encourages residents to reuse last week’s bags, or to fill pillowcases or mulch bags with sand if they can’t get actual sandbags.
Around 10 a.m. Tuesday, residents stood in line at Newtown Estates Park waiting on the county to ship in additional sand and bags. Those present weren’t panicked, but they did express more fear about Irma compared to previous storms.
“We’ve had storms this big in the past, and we’ve always been lucky enough that it misses us,” said Jesse Opperman, who was there to pick up bags to protect the machine shop in which he works. “But with what happened in Texas, it doesn’t hurt to prepare.”
Tonie Boston is a 10-year resident of Sarasota, and considers herself storm-ready. She doesn’t think Irma is too different from hurricanes Andrew and Charley, which she’s been through, but she’s still planning to stock up on supplies one more time before the weekend.
As for the rest of her to-do list?
“Pray, pray, pray, pray, pray,” Boston said. “That’s all you can do.”