On the list of things to im­prove: traf­fic sig­nals, evac­u­at­ing the el­derly, pet shel­ters

Tampa Bay Times - - Nation & World - BY RICHARD DANIELSON, STEVE BOUSQUET, MARK PUENTE AND C.T. BOWEN Times Staff Writ­ers

Now that Hur­ri­cane Irma has stag­gered through Florida like a drunken tourist, it is telling that the early lessons from the storm’s im­pact around Tampa Bay are less about life-and-death and more about qual­ity of life.

We learned the value of hav­ing gen­er­a­tors on stand-by. Of know­ing the rules of the road at in­ter­sec­tions with­out sig­nals. Of know­ing your neigh­bors. And of pre-brew­ing some good cof­fee for the morn­ing after the storm.

It’s a cy­cle built into nat­u­ral dis­as­ters: Ex­pe­ri­ence. Ob­serve. Maybe learn. Maybe change.

“The big les­son learned from Katrina was you had to get out there im­me­di­ately,” in­terim Tampa po­lice Chief Brian Du­gan said.

So that’s what 550 Tampa cops did, leav­ing their stag­ing area at Ray­mond James Sta­dium about 3 a.m. Mon­day, as soon as winds al­lowed. Street­lights were out, so Du­gan told of­fi­cers to drive with their blue and red lights on to an­nounce their pres­ence. In the pitch dark, you could see them flash­ing a long way off.

The of­fi­cial process of study­ing what worked has barely be­gun and will take a long time, but lo­cal of­fi­cials and res­i­dents say a few things are clear al­ready.

“We need to pre­pare for mass traf­fic sig­nal out­age after the storm and buy equip­ment that keep the sig­nals run­ning on bat­tery and or a ton of stop signs that will get peo­ple, hope­fully, to stop at in­ter­sec­tions as they should be do­ing any­way,” Pinel­las County Sher­iff Bob Gualtieri said.

Hills­bor­ough County Ad­min­is­tra­tor Mike Mer­rill agrees, but also wants a way to mon­i­tor and con­trol traf­fic sig­nals re­motely. And he said there should be emer­gency lights that come on at in­ter­sec­tions when every­thing else goes out.

“If some­body’s ap­proach­ing an in­ter­sec­tion, you can’t even see there is an in­ter­sec­tion,” he said. “You don’t know to look care­fully be­cause it’s too dark.”

The other thing, Mer­rill said, “is we need to work on co­or­di­na­tion with as­sisted liv­ing fa­cil­i­ties . . . to make sure they have a good plan to get peo­ple out.

“What we found was they kind of waited un­til the last minute or didn’t have a plan.”

Like the storm it­self, other take-aways from Irma touch on vir­tu­ally ev­ery as­pect of life.

Evac­uees mean peo­ple — and their pets

When Pasco County opened its first set of shel­ters, only one was ready for evac­uees with pets.

Big mis­take, Tax Col­lec­tor Mike Fasano said. A po­lit­i­cal leader for three decades who’s closely con­nected to Pasco’s many re­tirees, Fasano knew that older res­i­dents would refuse to evac­u­ate if that meant abandoning their dogs or cats.

“Their pets are their chil­dren,” he said. “I kept hear­ing from peo­ple, ‘Where are the pet-friendly shel­ters?’ ”

Sens­ing a grow­ing cri­sis, Fasano said he texted County Ad­min­is­tra­tor Dan Biles, who soon opened five more pet-friendly shel­ters. At the height of the storm, Fasano said more than 1,900 pets were in lo­cal shel­ters in Pasco.

Not enough gen­er­a­tors

In Tampa, sewage over­flowed from man­holes after power went out to 80 of the city’s 230 waste- wa­ter pump­ing sta­tions. Two days later, 75 pump­ing sta­tions were still off-line, forc­ing the city to ro­tate 20 por­ta­ble gen­er­a­tors among them.

Mayor Bob Buck­horn didn’t blame Tampa Elec­tric for the power go­ing out, but said, “I don’t like be­ing in that po­si­tion.”

“I’m think­ing, how many backup gen­er­a­tors do we need to buy? How much more fuel do we need?” he said the morn­ing after the storm.

Apps helped

Irma was Florida’s first true tech­nol­ogy hur­ri­cane.

It won’t be the last.

Gov. Rick Scott used TV to pro­mote the GasBuddy app, which tells users where sta­tions are open and what they’re charg­ing. And his chief emer­gency ex­pert, Bryan Koon, in­vited GasBuddy to set up shop at the state Emer­gency Oper­a­tions Cen­ter in Tal­la­has­see.

Florida’s big les­son for GasBuddy: The app needs more servers, more peo­ple and a lot more data.

“To main­tain ser­vices, we’re go­ing to have to beef up our ca­pa­bil­ity,” GasBuddy’s Pa­trick DeHaan said. “We also are learn­ing what type of data the gov­ern­ment is re­quest­ing dur­ing th­ese times so that in a sim­i­lar event we can have th­ese types of re­ports ready to go in­stead of hav­ing our team de­velop this over the week­end.”

In Pasco County, of­fi­cials mod­i­fied the MyPasco app so res­i­dents could use cell­phones to re­port storm dam­age, with pho­tos.

This helped the county build an on­line map show­ing closed roads and other prob­lems in real time.

“Any­body can see where the dam­age hap­pened in the county,” said County Ad­min­is­tra­tor Dan Biles.

The ben­e­fits don’t end there. The app also cre­ates a PDF file res­i­dents could use for in­sur­ance claims and FEMA ap­pli­ca­tions. In­trigued, the state has ex­pressed an in­ter­est in Pasco’s app.

Cur­fews are not popular

Lo­cal po­lit­i­cal lead­ers and law en­force­ment of­fi­cials im­posed cur­fews in more than a dozen coun­ties be­fore and dur­ing Irma, and some cit­i­zens saw ev­i­dence of overkill.

Tal­la­has­see lawyer and lob­by­ist Mark Dele­gal said lo­cal lead­ers over­re­acted when they im­posed a cur­few from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. for three nights.

“To­tally nuts,” Dele­gal posted on Face­book. “There is no rea­son that the tax­pay­ers of Leon County need to be told by ‘the gov­ern­ment’ that we need to stay in our houses for the next three nights. Gov­ern­ment serves us, not the other way around. We are free peo­ple !!!! ”

Pub­lic em­ploy­ees need to pre­pare, too

Lo­cal of­fi­cials uni­formly praised their first re­spon­ders, util­ity work­ers and em­ploy­ees for ris­ing to the storm’s chal­lenge.

“We get to see the best in our peo­ple when they’re faced with the most chal­leng­ing tasks,” Pinel­las schools su­per­in­ten­dent Mike Grego said.

But Mer­rill said lo­cal of­fi­cials need to think more about mak­ing sure gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees can se­cure their own house­holds and fam­i­lies in ad­vance, and to or­ga­nize work in the storm’s af­ter­math to pre­vent ex­haus­tion.

“We work re­ally hard in ad­vance to make sure those peo­ple are lined up and ready to go, but an event like this shows that they need to be con­fi­dent that their fam­i­lies are safe,” he said. “That way, they can fo­cus on pro­tect­ing the com­mu­nity.”

Build­ing stan­dards mat­ter

Irma’s at­tack on the Florida Keys left the chain of is­lands with no elec­tric­ity, cell ser­vice or sew­er­age.

But state Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, no­ticed houses built with con­crete, with metal roofs, were still stand­ing. Those made of wood were dam­aged or de­stroyed.

“The Florida build­ing code is a real eye-opener down here,” Raschein said.

An­other les­son is the unique ge­og­ra­phy of the Keys: 120 miles long and in many places a cou­ple of miles wide, which makes it very dif­fi­cult to prepo­si­tion the dis­tri­bu­tion of es­sen­tial items such as food and wa­ter.

“We have to make sure we plan for that,” Raschein said. Re­call­ing the last ma­jor hur­ri­cane to hit the keys in 2005, she said: “It’s been a while since Wilma.”

Sleep mat­ters

Gualtieri said the county needs to buy more cots be­cause sleep­ing on the floor is mis­er­able, even when it is only for two hours of sleep.

In Tampa, Du­gan said po­lice used one school as a place where of­fi­cers could get some rest, but they found that they couldn’t turn off the lights. Of­fi­cers try­ing to rest in the club level at Ray­mond James Sta­dium also had trou­ble sleep­ing with light stream­ing in through the win­dows.

On Face­book, Tina Tran of Hous­ton of­fered a tip from vol­un­teer­ing after Hur­ri­cane Har­vey: Put an eye mask and ear plugs in your go bag if you have to go to a shel­ter.

“They never turn off the lights,” she said, “and peo­ple are up and walk­ing around all the time.”

In­for­ma­tion mat­ters

Com­mu­ni­ca­tion with par­ents could have been bet­ter to ex­plain what needed to be done be­fore schools could re­open, said Pinel­las County Com­mis­sion Chair­woman Janet Long.

“At the end of the day, there will be a lot of lessons to be learned,” she said. “Th­ese are the things we have to do for the next time. There will be a next time.”

Jes­sica Seldin said she was glad she joined Zello, the app that lets cell­phones act like walkie-talkies.

“My neigh­bor­hood chan­nel has been of more value than al­most any­thing else,” she wrote on Face­book.

Since Hur­ri­cane Wilma in 2005, the pub­lic’s re­liance on mo­bile de­vices and cell­phones has be­come nearly uni­ver­sal, to the point where mil­lions of Florid­i­ans have dis­con­nected land line phones. When a ma­jor hur­ri­cane de­stroys cell­phone tow­ers, com­mu­ni­ca­tion is wiped out.

“We need satel­lite phones,” Raschein said. “Peo­ple have been scroung­ing to find land lines that work.”

Re­la­tion­ships mat­ter

One thing Jeff John­son of St. Peters­burg has learned as Florida di­rec­tor of AARP is that “one of the big­gest in­di­ca­tors of how well you fare in a cri­sis is your so­cial cap­i­tal.”

So John­son was glad he took the time to get the cell­phone num­bers of his neigh­bors so ev­ery­one could check on one an­other. After the storm, he took to Face­book to ask what oth­ers were glad they did and what they wished they had done. Peo­ple had a lot of ideas:

• Power up an iPad with head­phones to dis­tract and calm a younger child dur­ing the storm.

• Get fam­ily mem­bers to list ahead of time the five things they would most like to save. (Scrap­books? That col­lec­tion of Play­bills?)

•Have multi-USB plug-ins to power mul­ti­ple de­vices from only one out­let.

Lisa Schillinger of St. Peters­burg spent the storm at her sis­ter’s home on high ground in Palm Har­bor and re­turned home with two lessons. In an email, Schillinger said:

“I learned:

1) that if a Cat­e­gory 4 or 5 is com­ing this way, I am leav­ing the state.


2) that my 88-year-old mother can still kick my butt at crossword puzzles.”

New York Times

Homes on Big Pine Key are left de­stroyed in the af­ter­math of Hur­ri­cane Irma on Thurs­day. Irma slammed into the keys on Sept. 10 as a Cat­e­gory 4 hur­ri­cane.


Dogs sit in­side Kingsway El­e­men­tary School in Port Char­lotte on Sept. 9. At least 151 pets had been checked in at the school-turned-shel­ter.


St. Peters­burg po­lice Of­fi­cer Kevin Palmer shares re­cov­ery in­for­ma­tion with Ty­rone Bald­win, 71. Lo­cal of­fi­cials praised first re­spon­ders and pub­lic em­ploy­ees for their ser­vice dur­ing the storm.

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