After a hurricane season like last year's, how should we prep for this one? Pros weigh in

Amy Bennett Williams
Fort Myers News-Press
Benjamin Abes, the Lee County Public Safety Director, talks about things the community needs to do to prepare for the upcoming hurricane season.

For Southwest Floridians living through Hurricane Ian’s aftermath, the need to brace for next hurricane season, starting June 1, might seem plain.

But what about the quarter-million or so new Floridians who’ve moved here since that storm happened? Those folks have a little catching up to do. And so do many of us, truth be told. Disaster fatigue is real, but it’s worth pushing through, especially after we’ve seen what a bad one can do.

Now, in the calm before the (potential) storm, is a good time to knock it out, say officials with Collier and Lee counties. "Sit down with the family, talk about evacuation planning, talk about planning, talk about supplies and resources that you may need,” said Collier County's Director of Emergency Services Dan Summers. "We ask you to take your preparedness planning seriously."

Here are some ideas to help you get ready for 2023's hurricane season:

Think about the past to help handle the future

If you've had it, consider your experience with storms, and use that to inform this year's plan. That's something Lee County is doing right now, says county Public Safety Director Ben Abes. "On a broad perspective, the county has engaged with a consultant to do a very thorough after-action report (to) identify things that went well as well as things that did not go well and areas for improvement."

The county is working with a consulting firm on a “very thorough after-action report,” says Abes. It should be ready by early fall and cost taxpayers no more than $50,558, said Lee spokeswoman Betsy Clayton.

The study will gather outsider as well as insider insights, Abes said. “Shortly after landfall ... we had so many teams coming from out of the area who were going to pack up in two or three weeks and go home (and) we didn’t want to lose that perspective, so we engaged them in October to start collection and documenting the experience before they left.”

Knowledge is power ‒ and safety

Before the first storms gather, you should get the lay of the land, Abes says. "We want people to be ready when a storm is forecast to impact our area," he said. "Know your zone ‒ not just your evacuation, but also your flood zone. When we call for evacuations, people need to know what to expect."

And if officials do say it's time to go, "Know where you’ll evacuate – whether that’s a family member, or a friend's home or a community outside our area."

This year, especially, preparedness is key. "There are still a lot of homes that have damage, so we want them to take special note of the state of their repairs. Construction supplies and debris may be on their property because there’s still a lot of work to be done, and it’s important for people to take that into account.“

If that means hustling your to-be-installed roof shingles into a garage, budget the time to do that before the storm hits. "Bringing in loose items in your yard, collecting important documents, putting up storm shutters ‒ we want everybody to do those things before an evacuation order is issued," he said.

Get your paperwork in order – even if it's not actually paper

"Your immediate form of relief is your insurance company," Summers said. "People need to make sure they understand their insurance policy and how to get up with their insurance agent." Whether in a waterproof case, on your phone or in the cloud, be sure to keep that handy. Also useful: visual records of your property. "As the tropics get busy, take date- and time-stamped photos," Summers said. "Your roof, in particular, the interior of your home including contents. Those pictures can be invaluable for insurance discussions.”

And remember that there may be policy waiting periods, so don’t wait until a storm is bearing down before adding it. And if you do have it, don’t let it lapse, Summers advises.

More:Disaster preparedness sales tax holiday has a surprise this year: A second 14-day period

More:CSU predicting 13 named storms, 2 major hurricanes this season

Avoid the temptation to play amateur meteorologist

Rather than fretting about the European model and where the cone is, pay attention to actual watches and warnings, Summers said “as opposed to thinking we all have a really good idea of where the track is going to ultimately take the storm, because when they get close to land, they get unpredictable.”

Instead, sign up to get government emergency warnings (in Collier: https://www.colliercountyfl.gov/government/county-manager-operations/divisions/emergency-management/alert-collier and in Lee: https://alertlee.com).

And follow government social media channels, he said. “Make sure your government alerts are turned on. We know that sometimes in a storm the frequency of those alerts can be a little frustrating, but the content is important, the technology is good and the messages can certainly change.”

Summer Barry, Melissa Quiros and Jean Bruny work together to clean up debris throughout the floor level structure at Sundial Beach Resort and Spa in Sanibel Monday, May 1, 2023. Most of that part of the resort was flooded and destroyed by Hurricane Ian last year.
All three workers were already previously employed at the resort, but their duties have adjusted after the impact of Hurricane Ian forced the resort to close for clean-up and renovation.

Have a disaster kit (bug-out bag, if you prefer) and keep it fresh

Whether you evacuate or stay in a home with no electricity, be ready for survival mode. Things like water, food, batteries, medicine, pet supplies become precious when you can't dash to Publix. "Take advantage of the upcoming disaster preparedness tax holiday," Abes said. "That's a great opportunity to review the contents of your kit and make sure the items that need to be replaced every year get replaced." Unless Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoes a bill that sailed through both chambers of the Florida Legislature, there will be two chances to do that this season: the first in June, followed by a second in late summer.

More:Hurricane preparation: What supplies do you need for a storm? Here's a list

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Pay it forward

Keep the big picture in mind, Collier County's Summers urges. "We want to remind folks how fortunate we have been to have so many good neighbors and churches and community organizations helping with recovery," he said. "We point people to the Community Foundation of Collier County for disaster giving and funding ... that's a great way to help the community because nonprofit organizations can do so much for those having a tough time."

Lee County also has a multi-agency relief clearinghouse here: https://unitedwaylee.org/hurricane-ian-relief-fund/ .

Food and supply donations are fine, he says, but please don't just dump your soon-to-expire canned goods and the old fishing tackle in your garage. "Please don't bog us down with goods we may ultimately have to dispose of," he said. "We're very appreciative, but as I've said before, cash is king in a disaster."

Remember to plan for your pet if a potential hurricane may be heading your way.