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Close call: Sarasota residents feel fortunate Irma wasn't worse

Sarasota didn't escape the effects of Hurricane Irma, but with recovery underway, residents and officials are counting their blessings.

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  • | 6:00 a.m. September 15, 2017
Siesta Key resident Peter Hull surveys the storm damage Monday. Hull said he considers himself lucky for not losing his home.
Siesta Key resident Peter Hull surveys the storm damage Monday. Hull said he considers himself lucky for not losing his home.
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Carl Shoffstall returned to Lido Key on Tuesday, driving past dozens of downed Australian pine trees on John Ringling Boulevard as he drew closer to finding out what effects Hurricane Irma had on his island condominium.

He was coming from a home in Plant City, east of Tampa, that lost power at 5 p.m. Saturday. The neighborhood was littered with tree damage — and, unlike Lido Key, that was an area that hadn’t been under a mandatory evacuation order since Friday.

But when he finally got back home, Shoffstall discovered his condo hadn’t sustained any damage. The power came on about 20 minutes after he arrived.

Shoffstall, president of the Lido Key Residents Association, explored the surrounding neighborhood. He saw more fallen trees, and the wind had blown some aluminum carports askew, but by and large, the island seemed to be OK. Even eroded portions of the Lido Key shoreline appeared to have avoided harm.

“I can’t say it enough,” Shoffstall said. “It’s unbelievable we didn’t have any more damage than we had.”

Throughout Sarasota, residents emerged from Hurricane Irma with a similar sense of relief. That’s not to say the region made it throughout the storm without issue. A state of emergency remains in place for Sarasota County through Tuesday, Sept. 19. Even as residents returned to their homes, the county urged the public to stay off the roads, holding off on issuing an “all clear” notice post-Irma.

As of Thursday, 66,800 Florida Power & Light Co. customers remained without power. At the peak of the outages, 84% of county residents were without power. More than half of the county’s traffic signals were out after Irma, and 91 lift stations were without power on Wednesday. The Sheriff’s Office fielded almost 14,000 911 and non-emergency calls between Friday and Monday.

But given the potentially catastrophic damage officials were preparing for, the storm hitting the region as a Category 2 hurricane — and bringing an estimated 1-3 feet of storm surge — was seen as a blessing.

In the days that preceded Irma, there was a sense of widespread anxiety, even from longtime Floridians.

“I’ve been in many, and this is the only one I’ve been afraid about,” Lido Key resident Zanne Gordon, 70, said Friday. “This is the only one I’ve thought about leaving for.”

By Sunday, nearly 19,000 evacuees filled 14 shelters throughout Sarasota. On Monday, with the storm passed, only 60 remained. Even before crews got a chance to clear all residential streets, people were eager to get back home.

On Siesta Key, another mandatory evacuation zone, residents such as Peter Hull took blocked streets and downed power lines in stride.

“I expected much worse,” Hull said. “I expected to lose my house.”

Although many remain without power, and felled trees or wind has caused damage that will take some time to repair, there were no casualties from the storm.

On Monday, Sarasota County Emergency Management Chief Ed McCrane addressed the county in the immediate aftermath of Irma. He reminded residents the recovery effort would likely take weeks. He mentioned the importance of using caution while driving and giving emergency crews time to work. He talked about flooding concerns for residents on the Myakka River. He recognized that everyone was tired.

But he said the track of the storm ended up being very favorable for Sarasota. He put it simply:

“We were very fortunate,” McCrane said.