Longboat residents urged to prepare, act during hurricane season
Evacuation orders don't come lightly, so follow them when issued, leaders say.
| 5:00 a.m. May 25, 2022
It's not so much the thought of evacuating that brings consternation to Longboat Key residents during hurricane season, though the notion of leaving home in front of a looming storm is nothing to take lightly.
No, it's most often the un-evacuating that can deliver higher levels of anxiety, returning to the island from an inland hotel, a family member's home or an evacuation shelter, to unknown circumstances and conditions.
But Longboat Key Fire Chief Paul Dezzi and Sarasota County Emergency Director Ed McCrane want everyone to know they understand and have taken into account that angst when planning how, when and under what circumstances island residents will be asked to leave the during hurricane season, which opens June 1 and runs through November.
Experts expect an active season, with four major storms foreseen, nine hurricanes and 19 named storms overall. Although split between Manatee and Sarasota counties, the town of Longboat Key follows the lead of Sarasota's Emergency Management officials in determining when to issue evacuation orders but communicates extensively with both counties.
"It's very important not to wait to the last minute. It's important to have a plan now," McCrane said. "As we approach hurricane season, you want to start buying those supplies, put that disaster kit together, stay informed and then be ready to enact your plan."
Like the rest of Sarasota County's barrier islands, Longboat Key falls into the area's first-to-evacuate zone, the most vulnerable to storm surges that can wash ashore over dune lines, bayfront seawalls and across Gulf of Mexico Drive.
"If we ask people to evacuate, we want you to evacuate," Dezzi said. "We wouldn't tell you unless we thought it was necessary."
The most recent order to leave came in 2017 when Hurricane Irma, at the time a Category 4 storm, was forecast to ride up the gulf coast, just a few miles offshore. Though the storm took a turn toward inland Florida, Dezzi said he understands residents' frustration over predictions of mayhem that don't always materialize.
"The worst part of this is you wake up in the morning of a storm, then you begin to plan,'' he said.
Dezzi said it shouldn't matter where, or in what, you live on the island. High-rise condominiums have their own set of perils, as do manufactured homes and single-family residences. He said winds speeds increase even a few floors off the ground, and people could be trapped in upper floors if lower floors flood. He said a change of heart as the storm lands isn't a great idea either.
"We'll have people who refuse to leave, then call us to ask us to help them leave," he said, adding typically first responders will also evacuate to the mainland and won't operate when winds rise beyond 45 mph.
Returning to the island from an evacuation has become an orderly process, Dezzi said, governed by a three-tiered schedule that opens with fire, police and public works staffers working their way from one end of Gulf of Mexico Drive to the other, assessing damage and clearing the way. On the return trip, which could take hours or days, inroads are made on major side streets and neighborhood access points.
The second tier is intended to bring personnel from key island businesses back, such as banks, insurance representatives, grocery store workers and health care workers in preparation for residents.
Once conditions are considered safe for people who can establish their credentials as residents will be allowed back and will be issued a sticker identifying themselves, Dezzi said.
Dezzi said the reentry process likely won't be a lot of fun.
"This is a process. This is going to take time," he said. "You think there's traffic now — it's going to be hot and humid, but please be patient."
Hurricanes and storms of the past
2004: Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne
Synopsis: Four hurricanes threatened the island over the course of August and September. Charley posed the biggest peril but curved inland to strike at Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte, not as originally forecast much closer to Longboat Key.
Evacuations: Yes (for Charley)
Effects on the island: Charley’s passage was largely damage free; Frances brought heavy rains and pulled the roof of a home on Gulf of Mexico Drive; Ivan turned away from the island; Jeanne brought 70-mph winds to the Key, tearing off a roof, wrecking a car port and blowing away clay surfaces from the Public Tennis Center.
2017: Hurricane Irma
Synopsis: Probably the biggest threat the island has faced in the last five years, Irma’s potential for a coast-scraping disaster didn’t materialize as the storm moved up the middle of the Florida peninsula instead. Where it did strike, near Naples and throughout Central Florida, Irma did significant damage. By the time Irma reached latitudes equal to Sarasota-Manatee, the storm had fallen from Category 4 to Category 2, with its strongest winds well inland.
Effects on the island: Irma’s effects were largely wind driven. Signs toppled, trees were uprooted. “A 10 foot-surge wouldn’t have been cute,” one resident told us.
2020: Tropical Storm Eta
Synopsis: Although no evacuations were ordered, the November storm created serious seawater flooding issues on the northern half of the island. Water rushed through the streets of Longbeach Village, swamping homes, yards and swimming pools. High tides combined with storm surge to form a potent mixture.
Evacuations: No, though several people were rescued and taken to shelter during the storm’s flooding.
Effects on the island: About 200 homes experienced some level of flood waters, though flood depths were as high as fire hydrants in portions of Longbeach Village; no wind damage was reported, though sustained speeds of 45-50 were recorded, and between 5 and nearly 9 inches of rain fell on Longboat Key. Storm surge was estimated at 3 feet above normal high tide.
2021: Hurricane Elsa
Synopsis: Most of the July storm’s worst weather remained offshore.
Effects on the island: Some beach erosion took place, which flooded washed away a few dozen sea turtle nests, though significant damage was not reported islandwide. The next morning, town residents arose to find palm fronds and branches down, along with some ponding of water. As Fred Kagi of Longbeach Village said in comparison to the damage done less than a year earlier by Eta, “It’s not even the same storm. Not even close.”