Lessons Learned from Irma Will Help for Future Storms

'It's really about making sure that all the necessary folks are in the room that need to handle a situation.'

by Kevin Brockway, The Gainesville Sun, Fla. / September 18, 2017

(TNS) — Hurricane Irma brought out stories of unity and resolve throughout the state. Neighbors helping neighbors. Responders working tirelessly to treat injured and restore normalcy following the deadly storm.

Irma's shifting path brought the eye of the massive storm right through Alachua County as a Category 1 hurricane late Sunday night into Monday morning just as its organization tore apart. It moved on as a tropical storm. Still, it caused widespread flooding, downed power lines and extensive property damage. There were no storm-related fatalities reported here.

As with any natural disaster, adjustments were made and lessons were learned that could be applied to future storm preparation.

"One of the things we kept talking about prior to the event was, we don't have this is the manual," Alachua County commissioner Ken Cornell said. "There's no Cat 5-coming-straight-up-the-state in the manual, so we need to create the new manual."

What did Cornell take from the storm?

"It's really about making sure that all the necessary folks are in the room that need to handle a situation," Cornell said.

Alachua County Emergency Management Director John Shaw, hired last February, is no stranger to natural disasters. Shaw, 31, grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area during an earthquake that registered 8.1 on the Richter scale and interrupted the 1989 Major League World Series between the San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics.

Shaw said what stood out to him was the accessibility of leadership from within the community, from Cornell, to Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell, to Fire Chief William Northcutt, to Alachua County manager Michelle Lieberman.

"Everyone has been very accessible," Shaw said.

Along the way, decisions were made on the fly to help prepare for the storm. The county called in the Florida National Guard, with Santa Fe College offering its buildings to host the reserves, to help prevent looting of stores (none was reported). A third pet-friendly hurricane shelter was opened at Eastside High School in Gainesville, joining the Easton Newberry Sports Complex and Waldo School shelters.

"I don't know how many lives that were saved because we were able to house pets in our shelters," Shaw said. "I think that was an outstanding effort."

All told, more than 25,000 area residents and evacuees from South Florida were housed in 18 shelters throughout the county. The University of Florida was initially reluctant to offer shelter space to the general public. But after its shelter capacity of 205 at Steinbrenner Hall was filled by students and shelter volunteers, UF offered space to the public for its second shelter at the Southwest Recreation Center. With a capacity of 2,000, the center housed 600 people, including shelter volunteers.

"We were ready and prepared to open other shelter locations as demand called for it," said Janine Sikes, a UF spokesman.

Alachua County, like the rest of the state, dealt with a gasoline shortage following the storm. It was exacerbated by an already limited supply of imported gas coming from Houston due to Hurricane Harvey. Gas supply was further stressed by evacuees filling their tanks while passing through on Interstate 75 in the days leading up to the storm.

Gainesville resident and former FEMA Executive Director Craig Fugate said the gas shortages were inevitable due to the fact that systems are built for day-to-day consumption. Florida Gov. Rick Scott offered police escorts for fuel trucks in an effort to refill empty gas stations throughout the state, but gas lines stretched for blocks days after the storm.

"This is all private sector," Fugate said. "Are you willing to give them tax credits or extra money to build excess capacity that they don't use 99 percent of the time, to deal with the 1 percent? And that if that is something that you feel that strongly about, then the Florida Legislature needs to figure out how they pay or incentivize the private sector to do that. Otherwise, what industry would build excess capacity?"

Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) was able to secure 12,000 gallons of fuel from Lewis Oil to avert the possibility of a disruption in the water supply. GRU officials said the water is safe to drink and few experienced interruptions in water service after the storm.

By the Friday following the storm, GRU reported 92 percent of its customers had power restored. Fugate said many power companies throughout the state, since Hurricane Wilma in 2005, have more actively communicated to customers who experience outages following storms. The power grid throughout the state also has become more resilient, Fugate said.

"We've seen a rebalancing of putting more investment back in the infrastructure maintaining it," Fugate said. "I know that Florida Power and Light and some of the bigger utilities have had very substantial long-term investments and building resiliency in it." But he noted that even with regular trimming, Gainesville's broad tree canopy will bring down power lines in big storms.

Flooding on the Santa Fe River due to Irma's heavy rainfall caused flooding that nearly closed I-75 at Mile Marker 408 near High Springs. The river crested at 57 feet on Thursday morning before receding. The high water caused temporary road closures on U.S. 41, U.S. 441 and U.S. 27.

River levels were already high due to Alachua County experiencing a record 39.02 inches of rain during a three-month stretch from June to August. Gainesville is on track to set a record for rainfall this year.

"That's what happens when you put that much rain on a situation," Fugate said. "And again, this is natural drainage up here. This isn't like you've got pumps and levies and things you can do."

After years in control rooms during natural disasters, the former FEMA director rode out the storm as a private citizen. When power went out at his Gainesville home, Fugate turned to his battery-powered radio for information.

"It changes your perspective," Fugate said. "It also reaffirmed what I knew when I was up there, you need to be up front with people and tell them what to expect. Don't sugarcoat stuff, but you don't have to scare them, you just need to get them information so they can make an informed decision about how to prepare."


Gainesville Fire & Rescue responded to 221 calls Sunday and Monday, during and immediately after the storm, roughly double the number of normal calls.

They included:

  • 8 Motor vehicle crashes
  • 4 Water rescues
  • 32 fires (several trees from electrical lines)
  • 11 Hazmat calls: Fuel spills, leaks and odors of gas
  • 14 Electrical hazards, wires down
  • 36 Collapse, confined space or no longer entrapped (most of these were trees on houses)
  • 42 Citizen assists
  • 67 Alarms
  • 7 Other unknown type calls


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