Manatee County is preparing for hurricane season, and after the devastation Hurricane Ian caused to the south and in the Myakka City area, officials want to be sure residents are prepared.
“To see what happened south of us — that if Ian would’ve come here, what we could’ve expected — that refocused us to give a more serious message to the public that when we say to evacuate, it's because we don’t want anyone to die.” Deputy Director of Public Safety Steve Litschauer said. “It appears in Lee County that people did not heed that order.”
On Dec. 9, the Florida Medical Examiners Commission released a report on Hurricane Ian’s death toll. Of 144 hurricane-related deaths, 67 were in Lee County. Five people died in Manatee, 10 in Sarasota and one in DeSoto.
Hurricane season starts on June 1 and ends on Nov. 30. To kick off the effort, Manatee County held a Media Day May 15 at the Emergency Operations Center, followed by the third annual Community Hurricane Preparedness Expo May 18 at the Bradenton Area Convention Center.
The state is gearing up, too. Governor Ron DeSantis proclaimed the first week in May as “Florida Hurricane Preparedness Week.”
“With less than one month until the start of the 2023 season, the time to prepare is now,” Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie said in a press release. “After a very active 2022 season, and the devastating impacts from Hurricanes Ian and Nicole, I encourage all residents and visitors to know your area’s risks, determine if you live in a flood-prone area, and create a comprehensive family evacuation plan.”
Same county, different risks
Lakewood Ranch and Myakka City are only 20 miles apart, but Hurricane Ian proved the neighboring areas are under two vastly different sets of circumstances when it comes to flooding.
“Lakewood Ranch is fortunate," said Jodie Setnor Fiske, the acting director of public safety for Manatee County. "They are not in an evacuation zone. Those homes are very new. They are going to be able to take a Category 5 impact.”
In the days following Ian, Lakewood Ranch residents were in the clear and cleaning up debris. At the same time, some Myakka City residents were waiting on rescue workers to save them from rising waters. That included rising water after the Myakka River flooded and caused a levee in Hidden River to break.
“When you look at what happened in Myakka three to five days post-Ian, we knew that was coming," Fiske said. "The weather service was very clear that riverine flooding was going to be a concern. So when that happens, we’re going to pool those resources together to accomplish that mission.”
A year before Ian, the Myakka City Fire Control and the East Manatee Fire Rescue merged into one unit covering a 346-square-mile district with 98,000 residents. But when disaster strikes, the impact over the region dictates where first responders are dispatched.
State resources become readily available during disasters, too. Fiske said the county can call in search and rescue, high water rescue and ambulance strike teams that aid in mass evacuations.
“Don’t hesitate to call 911. Don’t hesitate to give them as much information as possible because that is going to drive where our resources are going,” Fiske advised.
Lessons from Hurricane Ian
Since there’s no one way to prevent flooding, the county is looking at how they can respond to it better. County officials rely heavily on the National Weather Service when it comes to planning. Fiske said the county will be "leaning forward" a lot more this season.
"So say for the riverine flooding, we might go ahead and stage high water rescue and swift water rescue out in areas like Myakka prior to that happening, so they're already there," she said. "In Ian, we kind of surged the area down in Charlotte County, Lee County and then the south part of Sarasota. Then, Myakka happened, and we had to push resources back up."
One measure already in place is a new spot in the Emergency Operations Center for beach and water rescue. The responsibilities of that team are to respond to beach and aquatic rescues, keep swimmers informed of any dangers and to oversee the beaches.
Each support function, such as fire, law enforcement and medical, has a lead person. The beach rescue chief will fill the new seat in the EOC. Currently, Chet Brown is serving as the interim, and there are about 20 lifeguards employed by the county.
“Every county employee, when they sign on, is told that there is a function for them during an activation (of the EOC),” Litschauer said. “Firefighters are great, but how often do they get in the water? We’re putting the professionals, who are in the water every day of the week, out there to help.”
Not only the lifeguards, but their equipment, too. Jetskis and flotation devices can be moved to staging areas before possible flooding. Starting with supervisors, the staff is also in the process of receiving an additional certification.
“Those folks are trained lifeguards. A majority of them are EMTs. A majority of them are rescue divers. And now we’re training as many as we can as water rescue technicians and swift water rescue technicians,” Litschauer said, “If you’ve ever encountered a drowning victim, they splash, they try to fight you. So if you’re not trained, even in a swimming pool, somebody can drown a rescuer because they’re pushing and panicking. These are professionals who have saved people out of rip currents in the Gulf of Mexico.”
The certification includes instructions on tying knots used in rescues, identifying and avoiding hazards and moving people and gear through swift water.
Manatee County has also increased focus and resources toward mental health services for first responders following disasters.
"I think that one of the biggest groups that I saw the most heavily impacted after Ian, when I was a state regional coordinator, were our dispatchers," Fiske said. "People need to understand that their choices affect everybody. So when they choose to stay, now they're stuck and they have to call 911, there's a dispatcher on the end of the line who will stay on the phone with them as long as they need, but it does take a toll on that dispatcher to have to say 'Help is not coming.'"
First responders are not dispatched until it's deemed safe enough to do so. Final words of advice from Fiske: Prepare to be self-sufficient.