Tex­ans’ plea: ‘Don’t for­get’ about us

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Rick Jervis

Af­ter Hur­ri­cane Har­vey bat­tered his apart­ment and flat­tened his art stu­dio in Rock­port, Texas, Ruben Sa­zon wor­ried that Hous­ton’s dra­matic floods would over­shadow his coastal city’s dev­as­ta­tion.

Now, there’s a new dis­as­ter draw­ing at­ten­tion away from Texas al­to­gether: Hur­ri­cane Irma rum­bled over most of Florida over the week­end, ex­tend­ing dam­ag­ing winds and pound­ing rains into Ge­or­gia and Alabama and leav­ing a trail of de­struc­tion.

“I hope peo­ple don’t for­get about Rock­port,” Sa­zon said as he drove around Cor­pus Christi re­cently look­ing for a new apart­ment. “We need the help.”

be­fore any in­di­ca­tion they were go­ing to get hit,” said Craig Fu­gate, the for­mer FEMA di­rec­tor and a Florida na­tive. “We saw pre­pared­ness far out­side the nor­mal. Peo­ple were pre­par­ing four, five, six days out.”

Gov. Rick Scott ap­pealed to Keys res­i­dents to leave, and they got out be­fore Irma slammed ashore, de­stroy­ing thou­sands of trail­ers and RVs and leav­ing many homes un­in­hab­it­able.

The early evac­u­a­tions and prepa­ra­tions led to wa­ter and gas short­ages across Florida days be­fore the skies be­gan to darken, but the in­con­ve­nience was worth it: As of Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon, searchers had found no ca­su­al­ties trapped in build­ings or trail­ers in storm-hit ar­eas of the Keys.

Scott, who toured the Florida Keys by air, saw the dam­age caused by 130-mph winds. “There were en­tire trailer parks that were just gone,” he said. “But peo­ple got out. We can re­build.”

Over­all, county of­fi­cials re­ported eight deaths re­lated to Irma, although the ex­act causes were not re­leased. Forty peo­ple were in­jured dur­ing the storm.

The evac­u­a­tion may have saved lives, but it frus­trated res­i­dents, many of whom were an­gry that re­porters got ac­cess to neigh­bor­hoods be­fore they did. Tem­pers flared Mon­day when Keys res­i­dents, see­ing clear skies, be­gan ag­i­tat­ing to re­turn.

Author­i­ties barred vir­tu­ally all ac­cess un­til Tues­day morn­ing as they cleared de­bris that in­cluded power lines, trees and sand block­ing the road, which was shred­ded in places by the storm’s force, peeled up like a sticker.

There was no power and no gas along the more-than-100-mile­long road to Key West. At one Key West gas sta­tion, the owner doled out gas from a plas­tic bar­rel, a gun on his hip.

The gover­nor said he un­der­stood the frus­tra­tion of re­turn­ing res­i­dents fight­ing the same traf­fic as when they left, but he pointed out that it meant large vol­umes of peo­ple heeded evac­u­a­tion or­ders: “They knew this was dan­ger­ous.”

Un­like many com­mu­ni­ties, the Florida Keys have only one road in and out — the snaking, mostly two-lane U.S. High­way 1, which has a 55-mph speed limit for most of its length.

Evac­u­at­ing as many of the ap­prox­i­mately 25,000 Keys res­i­dents — plus tourists — as pos­si­ble re­quired plenty of ad­vance warn­ing and a lit­tle bit of luck to help en­sure there were no road-block­ing crashes as thou­sands of cars, RVs and trucks (many tow­ing boats) rolled north.

It’s un­clear how many peo­ple re­fused to leave the Keys when or­dered, but many who stayed said they be­lieved the storm wouldn’t be as bad as pre­dicted.

When the or­der to leave came, Alex Rivero, 53, de­cided to stay on the is­land he has called home for nine years: “I came here to visit my mom and found par­adise.”

Rivero, who rode out the storm in a con­crete house on stilts on Long Key, one of the hard­est-hit ar­eas, said he was thank­ful the build­ing was so se­cure. The com­mu­nity in which he lives is a mix of trail­ers and con­crete homes. By and large, those con­crete homes show no dam­age. The trail­ers had roofs blown off and doors stove in by the wa­ter that rushed across the is­land.

“Look at how high that is,” Rivero said, point­ing at the waisthigh line of sea grass em­bed­ded in the chain-link fence sep­a­rat­ing Long Key Out­door Re­sorts from U.S. 1. The storm surge car­ried tons of white sand hun­dreds of yards from the ocean’s edge across the road and into the neigh­bor­hood, a pow­er­ful force that ripped away stairs and tum­bled away any­thing not bolted down. “We got hit hard.”

Far­ther south in the Keys, Cody Cow­p­land, 22, rode out the storm in the con­crete home his fa­ther built. Mon­roe County of­fi­cials have been tight­en­ing build­ing codes for years, most re­cently in 2015.

Cow­p­land said he and 11 other peo­ple hud­dled in their house, along with three dogs and a cat. They watched the front of the storm pass, then ven­tured out­side as the eye moved over. All those sto­ries about be­ing dead calm and clear? “To­tally wasn’t like that. Blew my glasses off my face. Twice,” Cow­p­land said.

Long­time hur­ri­cane fore­caster Phil Klotzbach said things could have been much worse on Key West, if not for last-minute changes to the storm track and those im­proved build­ing codes. Klotzbach, a re­search sci­en­tist in at­mo­spheric science at Colorado State Univer­sity, said the low death toll is a credit to both author­i­ties and to evac­uees.

“I know there were peo­ple that got stuck on the roads in Mi­ami-

“Har­vey, as well as the dam­age that Irma had done in the Caribbean, caused peo­ple to take this storm very se­ri­ously.” Hur­ri­cane fore­caster Phil Klotzbach

Dade County and gas is­sues, but all in all, I didn’t hear hor­ror sto­ries about peo­ple be­ing trapped on the roads when the storm came ashore,” he said. “I cer­tainly think that Har­vey, as well as the dam­age that Irma had done in the Caribbean, caused peo­ple to take this storm very se­ri­ously.”

Fu­gate cau­tioned against com­pla­cency. Peo­ple might get ac­cus­tomed to hav­ing such a long warn­ing pe­riod of a storm, but Hur­ri­cane An­drew went from vir­tu­ally noth­ing to a pow­er­ful storm in just a few days.

“We know peo­ple tend to look at th­ese storms as sin­gu­lar events,” he said. “And we still saw peo­ple do­ing things that were coun­ter­pro­duc­tive.”

TREVOR HUGHES, USA TO­DAY

Alex Rivero, 53, checks out storm dam­age in the Long Key Out­door Re­sorts neigh­bor­hood af­ter Hur­ri­cane Irma.

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