Prepping for the ‘big one’: City holds Hurricane Preparedness Seminar

Lance Shearer

If a major hurricane hits Marco Island, said Chris Byrne, the city’s emergency management recovery coordinator, your best strategy is to go somewhere else.

“The best way you can help us is by not being here,” Byrne told the roughly five dozen people who showed up Tuesday afternoon at City Council chambers for Marco’s Hurricane Preparedness Seminar. Byrne served as master of ceremonies for the event, bringing on 12 speakers, including city department heads and representatives from organizations concerned with storm preparation.

Hurricane preparation on the island became very real in the aftermath of the 2017 storm season, when category-3 Hurricane Irma made a direct hit, coming in off the Gulf to make landfall on Marco. While the island, with the exception of Goodland, was spared the worst scenarios of massive storm surge, as we saw when Maria leveled areas of the Florida Panhandle last year, there was significant damage on Marco from Irma, and lessons to be learned.

More:Marco Island reflects on Hurricane Irma response, plans for future disasters

Sharing those lessons on how to “prepare for, safely survive through and recover from a hurricane” was the focus of Tuesday’s event. While we have been in the official hurricane season since June 1, the months of August and September are traditionally the most active, and the season runs through November.

After an introduction by City Manager Michael McNees, interim police chief Capt. Dave Baer told attendees the many communication channels that emergency managers and first responders will use to get the word out before, during and after a hurricane. These include the MIPD Twitter account and other social media, their low-power radio station at 1690 on the AM band, which Baer pointed out can be accessed on car radios as well as battery-powered portables, Reverse 911 calls, with government making simultaneous telephone calls to all phones within a given area, and the Code Red system, which enables residents to sign up to receive phone, text, email and Twitter notices of bulletins such as evacuation orders.

Evacuation, said Baer, is key to safety on a low-lying barrier island, the entirety of which is included in the most vulnerable Zone A.

“Please, please, please, when we ask you to go, go,” he said. Flooding ahead of a storm’s arrival could make roads impassable, making early action crucial. “Turn around, don’t drown” was another mantra recited, with residents urged not to drive, walk, or swim through flood waters.

“Have an evacuation plan, and then do it,” said Fire-Rescue Chief Mike Murphy. “How many of you have a plan to evacuate? Maybe 30 percent,” he said, after asking for a show of hands. Residents remaining on the island will be cut off from even emergency assistance during a storm, said Murphy, telling harrowing stories of people who did stay during Irma – he estimated 2,000 to 5,000 in total – and requested aid that could not safely get to them under hurricane conditions.

“Figure five to seven days with no services” in a hurricane’s aftermath, Murphy advised those who remain, advising each household to prepare their own survival kit with water, non-perishable food, essential supplies and medications. People evacuating should take the survival kit with them in their car, he said, and notify out of town loved ones where they are going. And, he added, “don’t rush back” – there will likely be confusion, wreckage, and possible danger that would only be worsened by having additional people on hand.

Lauren Bonica of Collier County’s Bureau of Emergency Services spoke about storm shelters, of which there are none on Marco Island, as it is a barrier island in the evacuation zone of any hurricane. Public shelters, she said, should be the last resort of those who can’t find refuge elsewhere.

Damage from Hurricane Irma can be seen on Marco Island, Fla. Sunday, September 10, 2017.

“You don’t want to live on an army cot with 1,000 strangers for two weeks,” she assured her listeners. Special needs shelters are available, and those in need of them should sign up for the county’s special needs registry, which currently has 2,300 people on their list.

City Finance Director Gil Polanco reminded people to have cash on hand, and to safeguard and back up essential documents, such as passports, driver licenses, insurance information and wills. He counseled everyone to make an inventory of their belongings, including video or extensive photos of everything in their homes.

Public Works Director Tim Pinter spoke of the work his department will do to clear roads after a storm and laid out how debris to be picked up – by the county – must be placed and separated. Water and sewer manager Jeff Poteet told residents that before they leave, they should shut off their main water supply valves, and also the lines to dock hoses. Tricia Dorn of LCEC laid out what the electric utility will do in case of a hurricane, and told residents they can log onto the LCEC SmartHub system for real-time information on power outages.

The presentations were illustrated by a series of informative slides, all of which are available on the city’s website, by clicking on the “emergency information” link.