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

Lisa Conley
Marco Eagle
Emergency vehicles are stationed outside of Marco Island's City Hall to assist with Hurricane Irma cleanup on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017. The Marco Island City Council met Monday night for the first time since Irma made landfall.

The Marco Island City Council met Monday for the first time since Hurricane Irma made landfall on the island as a Category 3 storm, and unsurprisingly Irma dominated much of the night as the councilors, city staff and residents dissected the past three weeks and focused on changes for the future.

What worked, what didn't and why

The councilors first heard from lobbyist Ronald Book, who appeared before them to discuss the priorities for the Collier County State Legislative Delegation. Although the priorities might have been different at another point in time, there’s now a single focus:

“Irma. Irma. Irma. Irma. Irma. Irma. Irma. Irma. Irma. Irma,” Book said. “I think the bulk of what you’re going to hear over the next 90 to 120 days as we get ready for the legislative session is what are they going to do and how much money are they going to have on the table to do it.”

Book said there's already a Florida House of Representatives select committee to determine the state’s pending priorities. He also said the House technically only has $52 million of surplus to spend, but it has billions in “rainy day funds” that could, and should, be used in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.

“If there was ever a day, a time, a month, a year in which rainy day funds should be made available to the legislature to spend, it should be after a natural disaster,” he said.

"This vehicle was actually stored inside the parking garage during #HurricaneIrma," the Marco Island Police Department (MIPD) tweeted on Sept. 11, 2017. Thirteen police vehicles were damaged during the storm, and two were totaled.

More:Congress approves special tax breaks for Harvey, Irma and Maria victims

More:Collier County tallies $320M of estimated damage from Hurricane Irma

Book also stressed the unprecedented nature of Irma with regards to its magnitude and impact on the state.

“Never have we had an early declaration as we had here that enveloped 67 counties of which 55 had major impacts, 50 of which have super cleanup jobs the way you do,” he said. “Never before have so many cities in so many counties had to find a way in which they would have to come up with the match to deal with what needs to happen from a cleanup perspective.”

More:U.S. Rep. Rooney, Collier officials urge patience for post-Irma cleanup

One of the most important things to do after a natural disaster, Book said, is learn from it, which the state has done in the past.

“One of the things that came out of Andrew … is the Florida building code,” he said. “That was done because we created a task force that studied and traveled around the state and determined what needed to change.”  

More:State Attorney's Office activates Hurricane Response Team following Irma

That change begins at the local level with the people who know their cities best.

“What I’m hopeful to get are ideas that your staff has for improving the building code,” he said to the council. “What worked (and) what didn’t work? Here’s what we know didn’t work; we know there are issues out there related to debris. Why are there issues? What has happened?”

Marco Island City Council Vice Chair Jared Grifoni

Members of the council pointed out other issues that arose during the storm, such as the Sunshine Law interfering with their ability to communicate with each other.

“One thing that I found to be particularly disadvantageous is the elected representatives of this city were unable to communicate with each other until this meeting,” Vice Chair Jared Grifoni said. “We had our hands tied behind our back and I think that created somewhat of a bottleneck for the flow of information from our staff.”

Residents at the meeting voiced other frustrations, albeit not with the city or its leadership.

“I’m very disappointed with Comcast,” one woman said. “I’ve seen very few trucks around and I don’t think they’ve done a good job.”

A few think the county hasn’t done a good job, either.

“Where has waste management been for the past two weeks picking up bulk?” one resident asked. “If they were picking up bulk immediately after the storm, it wouldn’t look like it looks now. I know that the situation is overwhelming with the debris (but) we shouldn’t be paying Collier County … for a job that’s not getting done.”

Damage caused by Hurricane Irma on Marco Island on Sept. 11, 2017. Marco Island residents are frustrated with the slow pace of the county's cleanup effort.

As for the city, the residents had nothing but praise for the way in which it handled the hurricane.

"I don't care about the political differences we have in our community," one man said, "our hats have to go off to this council and our chairman who has been on hand 24 hours a day, seven days a week serving this community for the last three weeks."

The sum of its parts

The directors of each city department were given the opportunity to address the councilors and walk them through the steps their staff took to prepare for Hurricane Irma.

Interim City Manager Gil Polanco also spoke to the council about Irma, and praised the community for its strength and resilience before, during and after the storm.

"As we fall back into our routines, we reflect on the power of nature and on what is truly important to each of us," he wrote in his city manager's report. "(And) we again thank the community for their efforts before, during, and after the incident. Our community comprised of our citizenry, our civic leaders, our city staff, and those in commerce all performed admirably and most importantly, cohesively. Without the sum of its parts the whole would indeed fall apart."

More:‘Marco Strong’: Islanders gather for Patriots party to benefit storm relief

More:Marco Patriots help storm victims near and far

More:Hurricane Irma: How Marco Island weathered the storm

According to the incident commander report, the City of Marco was tested on its response capability to a natural disaster concerning five main objectives: life safety, incident stabilization, environmental concerns, property conservation and recovery efforts, which officially began at 8 a.m., Wednesday, Sept. 13.

Damage from Hurricane Irma can be seen on Marco Island on Sept. 13, 2017, three days after the hurricane made landfall.

Chris Byrne, incident commander of the recovery efforts, wrote that the city intends on learning from Irma and updating its disaster plans accordingly.

"An after-action review is in the process of being scheduled with city staff to identify the strengths, weaknesses and critical needs identified during Hurricane Irma,” he wrote. “The city’s Emergency Management Plan was planned to undergo an update and the experience of this incident will aid in the improvement process of the plan."

Irma by the numbers

  • 300,000 Code Red emergency messages were sent before, during and after Irma to 16,000 subscribers:
    • 35,000 texts
    • 27,000 emails
    • 20 separate Code Red messages
  • 3,059 calls for service were responded to by Marco Island Police Department (MIPD) officers
  • 3,000 storm-related flyers were distributed locally by MIPD, Collier County Sheriff's Office, city councilors and volunteers
  • 13 MIPD vehicles were damaged and 2 were totaled

Statistics provided by the Marco Island Police Department.