MARCO ISLAND — Living in paradise, residents have to learn to deal with unwanted guests. Monday evening, nearly 100 Marco Islanders showed up at the Community Room inside the police station to hear about dealing with the most unwelcome of all – hurricanes.
As Islanders arrived for the 2011 Hurricane Preparedness Seminar conducted by the city’s police and fire-rescue departments, they were met by flashing lights from emergency vehicles. Inside, they listened to a presentation from Jim von Rinteln, former emergency management coordinator for Collier County, and just-retired Red Cross CEO for the south Gulf coast region.
Asked for a show of hands by Fire Chief Mike Murphy, many of the attendees identified themselves as newcomers to the area, from states including Oklahoma, Ohio, Virginia and New Jersey. Von Rinteln warned against complacency, which he said can afflict those who have been through hurricanes as well.
“Don’t judge the next storm by the last one,” he said, and don’t think the danger disappears with the winds. There were eight fatalities after Hurricane Wilma, mostly traffic deaths from people sightseeing after the storm passed. “And there’s always someone who thinks the living room is a good place to put their generator.”
Living on an island, said von Rinteln, it’s even more important to pay attention to weather alerts, have a plan ahead of time, and heed mandatory evacuation orders.
“Watch the Weather Channel,” he advised. “When you see that cone (of probable storm path) sitting on Marco Island, that’s a big hint.” He showed photos of demolished multi-story buildings, stressing that even high rises are at risk. Murphy added that people in condos who have stayed through major storms often wished they had not.
“There is no more fear in your life. The wind is howling, and it feels like the building is coming down. You’re calling us, and we’re telling you we can’t even leave our fire station,” he said, also mentioning the distress caused to distant family members not knowing whether loved ones are safe.
“People who stayed in high rises for Wilma swore they wouldn’t again,” said von Rinteln, “but people only stay scared for about six months.”
One attendee at the seminar had more experience than she ever wanted with hurricanes.
“After Ivan, we called and asked ‘how’s the house,’ and they said ‘what house,’ ” said Kim Gates. Her home in Grand Lagoon, near Pensacola, vanished during the storm in ’04. “There was a 16-foot storm surge – you can’t imagine what that does. Even the brick houses were gone. I had no insurance, but I’ve got it now,” she said. Now living on Marco, she said they also have a home in Ave Maria, and will be there when a storm strikes.
Much of the advice boiled down to the same common sense safety tips longtime residents have heard over and over, but don’t always follow. Have food, water, money, and a full tank of gas. Make plans ahead of time – one for staying, and one for going. Know where you and your pets will go if you do have to leave, and don’t leave it till the last minute.
Traffic jams are not an issue, if you leave early, said von Rinteln, and outgoing Police Chief Thom Carr said, with seasonal residents not on the island, the worst might be like “when everyone wants to go to dinner in Naples.” Marco Island has a sticker program, allowing residents and employees to return to the island after a storm, and residents have never been prohibited from getting back to their homes, said von Rinteln.
Dealing with a hurricane’s aftermath requires residents to be self-sufficient, said the emergency professionals.
“The first 72 hours are up to you,” von Rinteln repeated several times, stressing the need for those in a storm-battered area to have enough food, water, and supplies to see themselves through three days without outside assistance. Murphy explained how the island is divided into 17 zones, each assessed for damage by a team of emergency personnel and CERT volunteers. CERT, the Citizens Emergency Response Team, is a perfect example of people taking responsibility for themselves and their neighbors.
Von Rinteln emphasized the importance of shutters on windows, a strong garage door, and homes built since the 2002 building code went into effect. Those, including him, who live in older homes, need to take that into consideration when making the decision to evacuate or ride out the storm.
Representatives from Publix and Sunshine Ace Hardware were on hand, showing some of the items they sell to stock up residents’ hurricane kits. “There’s no line to buy stuff right now,” said von Rinteln.
Murphy cautioned against unreasonable anxiety.
“This is a beautiful place to live. We don’t live in fear,” he said. “Our job is to get you back safely, as soon as possible.”
“The people who worry the most,” said von Rinteln, “are the ones who don’t prepare.”
More information is available from a multitude of sources, including Collier County Emergency Management at www.collierem.org.