Laura Layden Naples Daily News
Published 9:00 AM EDT Sep 12, 2018
Is Southwest Florida better prepared for another Hurricane Irma?
In many ways, yes. In some ways, no.
From Marco Island to Cape Coral, emergency plans have been tweaked, communication lines have opened up, buildings have been hardened, and drainage systems have been unclogged across the region.
There aren’t as many trees ready to topple, so there could be fewer roadblocks and downed power lines.
Some infrastructure has improved. But there are still many upgrades on the wish list, and weaknesses and gaps remain that leave the region vulnerable to damage and loss — and to big headaches if another Irma strikes, including widespread power outages, nasty floods and fuel shortages.
There are property owners who are more vulnerable because their homes and businesses still aren’t fixed from the last hurricane, especially in the hardest-hit areas where bright blue tarps still cover roofs ravaged by the storm.
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On Marco Island the permitting department has seen its workload more than double since Irma, due to a surge in storm-related repairs for everything from roofing to seawalls. The city struggled to keep up with a boom in construction before the storm hit — and now it faces a serious backlog of permits.
“We were a direct hit from a natural disaster. Thus, our level of service has been impacted. Not only has our permitting and inspection workload increased, but so has all other aspects of our responsibilities,” said Raul Perez, the city’s building official, in a report to the City Council.
While cities, counties, fire districts and school districts have made some quick fixes that could make a big difference if another hurricane comes along, other improvements will take more time and money — and may never happen if the dollars aren’t there to pay for them.
Some hardening projects are still in the works, such as a state-of-the-art emergency operations center that will be part of the new Fire Station No. 1 — not expected to be operational until April — near Naples City Hall. The new fire-rescue headquarters is designed to survive a Category 5 hurricane — and will be the highest-rated building for storms in the city.
“If the hurricane gods are going to do us any favors, they’ll take it easy on us this year and we will be better prepared next year,” Naples Fire Chief Pete DiMaria said.
He recalls his experience riding out the storm in the current emergency operations center at the Naples Police Department on Riverside Circle.
“It sounded like an old pirate ship,” he said. “It was a little rough.”
Naples is getting stronger
Naples plans to harden other buildings and to put a generator in the River Park Community Center, the home base for city employees helping with cleanup and recovery after Irma.
With new mapping technology, the city can better address and identify problem areas causing power outages, which could help FPL get the lights back on more quickly the next time around, DiMaria said.
The city, he said, created its own forms for employees to fill out for reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency after realizing the agency’s versions weren’t user-friendly, which will be “less painful” for future storms.
For Irma the city submitted $4.2 million in storm-related expenses to FEMA for reimbursement, but it hasn’t received any money back, leaving it tight on reserves if another hurricane should hit.
More: FEMA admits shortcomings in 2017 hurricane response
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“Often it takes a while to get reimbursed,” DiMaria said. “And when I say a while, it could be years.”
One of the biggest lessons the city learned from Irma? The need for Naples to be self-sufficient for 72 hours, as it may take that long for help to arrive, DiMaria said.
After the storm a Hurricane Irma After Action Report identified short- and long-term solutions to help the city better prepare, withstand and respond to such a disaster. The report identified 17 problems that arose during the storm.
One of the more critical problems? FPL was delayed or slow to respond, but since Irma the city has developed a closer working relationship with the utility, DiMaria said.
Collier County taking action
Dan Summers, director of Collier County’s Bureau of Emergency Services, said the county learned several important lessons from Irma that will help it respond better next time.
The county’s social media outreach worked so well it plans to put more energy into those efforts and share more information with residents in times of disaster, including details about road conditions and boil water notices.
“At one point (during Irma) we had 1.7 million views on our social media resources,” Summers said.
The public utilities department is looking at purchasing and renting more generators for lift stations and sites, he said, to keep wastewater lines flowing — and to keep sewage from overflowing onto the ground and backing up into homes and other buildings.
The county has also negotiated a new contract for fuel to better meet its needs for emergency and other vehicles used for disaster response. It’s looking at ways to improve fuel supplies for the public, too, but that’s a much bigger challenge, Summers said.
More: Collier County victims needed ice, water, food and money after Irma, still need that a year later
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The county has worked with the Collier County School District to ensure there are enough employees from the district and the county to work at shelters for future storms. Many of the shelters are public schools.
The county will continue to emphasize that shelters are not a first choice but rather a last resort for residents.
“We have a slogan, ‘Shelters are a life boat, not a love boat.’ Remember, you’ll only have the basics there,” Summers said.
For Irma, the county opened 26 shelters.
“It was a real stretch for law enforcement to help us with security there. That was tough. That was a big challenge,” Summers said.
There aren’t enough generators or cots for all the shelters, but that’s not something the county or the school district can afford to remedy, he said.
More: Diaz-Balart visits Everglades City with no timetable for Hurricane Irma recovery money
More: Collier to get first FEMA reimbursement for debris clearing after Hurricane Irma
In the aftermath of Irma, the federal government has made up to $22 million in grants available to local governments and nonprofits in Collier County for hazard mitigation projects. The projects must be approved by FEMA, and a 25 percent local funding match is required.
The county, Summers said, has applied for $34 million, hoping to snag a big chunk of the mitigation money to pay for additional generators at its lift stations.
Other applicants for the mitigation grants include Marco Island, which has requested money for eight projects. Those projects include elevating and strengthening Fire Station 50, hardening City Hall and improving drainage on San Marco Road.
Marco Island has fortified some of its city buildings since Irma based on mitigation plans designed to improve their resistance to future storms.
“Repair of city facilities is being done in compliance to current building codes and standards. This naturally provides fortification of the facility,” said Chris Byrne, the city’s incident commander for Hurricane Irma, in an email.
Communications are better
Tony Pernas, president of the Long Term Recovery Group for Everglades City, Chokoloskee and neighboring communities hit hard by Irma, said there wasn’t an organized plan or group before the storm to deal with such a devastating disaster. Now there are leaders from local governments and organizations, including churches and charities, who know what to do if another storm like that comes along.
“We know what needs to be done immediately after the storm for public safety and to get the people back on their feet,” Pernas said.
Next time around, Pernas said he expects more people in these flood-prone communities to evacuate, to do so sooner — and to take more of their valuables with them.
In these small communities, many people are worse off than they were a year ago, with houses they still can’t live in because they can’t afford to elevate them. If damage is severe, costing 50 percent or more of the market value, then the homes have to be raised above the floodplain.
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“A lot of people don’t have insurance or funding to raise their houses. We’re working on trying to get grants to assist with that,” Pernas said.
In Everglades City many houses are vacant and many businesses haven’t reopened because their owners didn’t have insurance and don’t have the money for repairs. So their owners are in no position to face another big storm, Pernas said.
In the aftermath of Irma, the city has applied for grants to upgrade its sewage plant and repair the streets.
“Even though we’re making some headway, we expect it to be three to five years before the community is back on its feet again,” Pernas said.
Unmet need in Immokalee
In Immokalee, Deputy Fire Chief Thomas Cunningham, said what became even clearer from Irma was the need to build a new emergency operations center — and to harden the fire stations in the Immokalee Fire District. The district includes two stations in Immokalee and one in Ave Maria.
The storm forced the district to evacuate all of its stations. With a rented U-Haul truck, crews made multiple trips, moving all the fire equipment and the district’s support and operational equipment and materials, including its computers, to more secure locations: iTech – Immokalee Technical College and the student union at Ave Maria University.
“911 calls are still happening while that’s happening,” Cunningham. “It’s definitely a challenge, and it’s not a position that an emergency responder should be in. It’s not ideal.”
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With a proposed fire fee, the district had hoped to raise additional money to upgrade its stations and build a new emergency operations center. But voters in the district soundly rejected the fee proposal in the Aug. 28primary election.
“Right now we have nothing,” Cunningham said. “Something would be better than nothing.”
On a more positive note, he said, if another big hurricane headed this way, he’d expect to see more residents in the district heed the warnings and evacuate.
“Hopefully, nothing comes,” he said. “I mean, give us a break.”
Immokalee has a plan
Dawn Montecalvo, president of the Guadalupe Center in Immokalee, said that before Irma the communication between community organizations and the county were “almost nonexistent” and that has changed.
The Immokalee Unmet Needs Coalition was formed to work on long-term recovery and to create a plan to be better prepared for future storms, she said. The coalition has become the point agency for distributing storm information.
In the aftermath of Irma, the Benison Distribution Center was created to take in donations ranging from food and diapers to flooring and appliances.
“The one area that is not completely fixed and prepared for another storm like Irma is housing,” Montecalvo said. “This will take a while.”
This fall, five condemned trailers will be replaced with new homes, which will be built by the Mennonite Disaster Team. The Unmet Needs Coalition is raising money to build 10 more homes.
“For these families, they will be prepared for future storms with a new standard home,” Montecalvo said.
Projects paying off in Lee County
Irma prompted the largest evacuation in Lee County’s history, with more than 300,000 people ordered to leave their homes. The storm also triggered the largest sheltering operation, with more than 35,000 people and more than 3,000 pets staying in 14 shelters, said Lee Mayfield, the county’s director of public safety and emergency management.
The county is looking for ways to grow its shelter capacity, he said.
Irma showed the importance of emergency preparedness, Mayfield said.
More: Utilities add backup power after Irma to avoid sewage overflow repeat
In Lee: Heavy rain, not enough generators adds up to sewage on Lee County streets after Irma
“It’s very clear and history shows that individuals who prepare in advance always have better outcomes. The people who prepare in advance always recover quicker after events like Irma,” he said.
The county has found more creative ways to spread the critical information residents and businesses need to be better prepared for hurricanes.
Since Irma the county has focused on reminding residents about the importance of having the proper insurance, including wind and flood protection.
Improvements done since Irma include work in the hard-hit Island Park Road area, such as regrading the roadside stormwater drainage swales and cleaning out the stormwater culverts.
“Lee County’s considerable mitigation efforts helped during Tropical Storm Alberto and this year’s earlier-than-normal start of rainy season. The county will continue to address flooding issues throughout Lee County,” said Betsy Clayton, a county spokeswoman.
The county recently received a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to complete the cleanout of San Carlos Park ditches and the East Mulloch weir repair, as well as to remove sediment from countywide canals, including Ten Mile Canal.
In Lee County local governments and agencies could be eligible for up to $24 million in hazard mitigation grants as a result of Irma. As in Collier, potential projects could include acquiring more generators and making more drainage improvements, Clayton said.
Bonita Springs continues to recover
Bonita Springs continues to work on Irma-related repairs and debris removal and is pursuing money for those projects. Immediately after the storm, the city coordinated the removal of nearly 524,000 cubic yards of debris, according to a report on its website.
Repairs made since the storm include fixing the stormwater retention pond inlet structures citywide and snagging and clearing the Imperial River, Kehl Canal, Leitner Creek Canal and bypass, and Rosemary Canal, as well as restoring and regrading roads such as Luke Street, East Terry Street and Southern Pines Drive.
Flooding remains a big concern, and the City Council has made stormwater management a top priority. In June the city hired a consultant to find the best way to set up a citywide fee to support the maintenance and expansion of the stormwater system. Stantec, the consultant, is set to return in October with an initial report.
A cleanup bill topping $7 million dipped into Bonita Springs’ reserves. FEMA is expected to reimburse more than $5 million, although it’s unknown when the city will get the money.
More: Homeowners leave Bonita Springs neighborhood flooded by Hurricane Irma
Estero gets new mapping system
Estero has developed a closer working relationship with its residential communities, many of them gated, since Irma, which will help with future disasters, said Kyle Coleman, assistant to the village manager. Many of the communities stepped up to remove their own debris after Irma, not wanting to wait for help to arrive, he said.
The village’s utility department has worked closely with communities to help them review and improve their drainage plans and learn how they can work together to ensure better water flow among them, Coleman said.
Estero has a new GIS mapping system that will allow it to see the condition of road signs and traffic lights in real time so it can identify and fix problems quicker, he said. The same system can also be used to track where there’s flooding and where homes are damaged so that all the information can be easily found in one place.
“We did a solid job last year, but each year I think you get more experience, and you get more prepared, and I think that’s true here,” Coleman said.
The village continues to emphasize the importance of disaster preparedness to its residents, so it remains fresh in their minds, reminding them of the essential steps to take and supplies to get to prepare for hurricanes, he said.
“It’s important to understand you can’t be prepared for everything,” Coleman said. “You may have to leave if that’s just the way things work out.”
The village has added a new emergency alert sign-up page to its website. More than 3,000 residents have signed up.
Cape Coral expects to do better next time
Maureen Buice, a public information specialist for Cape Coral, said, “We learned the value of a unified command structure in making important decisions during an emergency event.”
In a review of its storm response, the city identified several opportunities for improvement, she said.
“Several changes have been made that mostly involve internal processes,” Buice said.
The city is re-evaluating its debris management contracts.
“All of Cape Coral’s contracted debris removal companies were unavailable following Irma, which left the city scrambling to pick up hurricane debris,” Buice said. “These companies did not have resources available due to the ability to make more money elsewhere and the lack of equipment that was needed.”
Like many other cities, Cape Coral has not received any FEMA reimbursements.
The city spent almost $18 million on Hurricane Irma, but the city manager’s proposed budget for next year would replenish the money taken from the city’s disaster relief fund, Buice said.
As a result of Irma, she said, residents and businesses seem more aware of the dangers of storm surge in Cape Coral.
While there aren’t a lot of blue roofs in the city, many people still have seawalls damaged by the storm, Buice said.
Comcast adds new tools
Cities and counties aren’t the only ones that learned from Irma and have taken steps to prepare better for the next big storm.
Following Irma, Comcast, with more than 2.6 million residential and business customers throughout the state, restored service to more than 92 percent of its affected customers within a week — and to more than 99 percent a few days later, said Cindy Arco, public relations manager for Comcast’s Florida Region.
The company provides cable television, Internet and phone services.
The storm dealt a significant blow to Comcast’s network in South Florida, Southwest Florida and the Florida Keys, including cable lines wrapped around power lines, and thousands of damaged and downed poles. In many cases poles were destroyed.
For this hurricane season, Comcast developed new tools to help with restoration, including enhancements to a database used to map its network assets and capture and manage the complex elements of the restoration process. A new outage tracker and damage assessment manager will help assess network damage and deploy resources faster, Arco said.
FPL strengthens power grid
FPL, the state’s largest electric utility, has invested more than $3 billion to strengthen and improve the reliability of its power grid since the brutal 2004-05 hurricane season that culminated with Hurricane Wilma. Investments include strengthening power lines and poles, trimming trees near power lines and installing smart grid technology.
About 95 percent of FPL’s customers who lost power due to Irma had it restored within a week. That compared with 15 days after Wilma, which was a weaker hurricane, company spokesman Bill Orlove said.
Smart grid technology, which includes smart meters and automated switches on poles, helps FPL identify and diagnose equipment issues sooner, automatically reroutes electricity around trouble spots and pinpoints the location of outages more quickly.
For Irma, FPL avoided 546,000 outages in all the counties it serves with its smart switches, Orlove said.
By the end of the year, FPL will have completed the following improvements in the Naples area since 2006:
- Upgraded and strengthened 17 main power lines serving critical buildings such as hospitals and police and fire stations.
- Trimmed tree limbs and vegetation along 5,250 miles of power lines.
- Inspected all 41,337 power poles for strength.
- Installed 1,619 smart grid devices, including 21 automated switches on main power lines.
- Inspected 182 main power lines and equipment using infrared cameras to detect potential problems.
FPL has made similar improvements and investments in Lee County, including upgrading and strengthening 39 main power lines and installing 2,567 smart grid devices.
Through a “Right Tree, Right Place” program, FPL restricts what can be planted near power lines, but property owners don’t always follow the rules.
FPL has pushed for local regulations to help keep trees clear of its lines. Broward County adopted such rules in May to protect against power outages during future hurricanes, levying fines against violators.
FPL also encourages property owners to trim overgrown trees near power lines and offers to chop them down when they are too close, but the company can do it only if owners give their permission.
The good news? Irma knocked down and trimmed a lot of problem trees.
Looking ahead, Orlove said there are hopes of putting more power lines underground, where they’ll be more protected in the face of hurricanes. Through a three-year pilot program, FPL will bury neighborhood power lines behind homes and on side streets to investigate the benefits. It’s looking for customers to participate in the program, which is free but may require access to their property.
As for the main power lines, FPL hopes to put more of them underground.
“Right now out of all of our main power lines, 43 percent of them are hardened, strengthened or are underground,” Orlove said. “In the next coming years we hope to have all of those hardened or underground.”
More: Lee Health claiming $4.6 million in Irma damages, extra employee costs
LCEC in good shape
Karen Ryan, public relations manager for LCEC, said the electric cooperative, with nearly 200,000 customers and more than 8,000 miles of energized line, was in good shape going into Irma — and it’s still in good shape.
“Within a week we had almost all of our customers who lost power restored. We had almost 90 percent restored. Considering the damage from Irma, our plan worked well,” she said.
The utility works on hardening all year round, Ryan said.
“We replace 1,000 to 1,500 poles a year, just in our normal course of business,” she said.
The company is also aggressive about trimming trees near its power lines, especially main circuits, and that paid off during Irma.
“Our system really held up well with Irma,” Ryan said. “We had a lot of major damage in Lehigh Acres because the winds went right through there and there was a tornado, but everything we replaced is now new. So it’s with the newest type of poles and newest types of equipment. It’s in very good shape.”
Some of the lessons LCEC learned from Irma? The importance of around-the-clock communication on social media, arranging lodging for out-of-town crews throughout the service area and completing documents for FEMA reimbursement thoroughly — all challenges the company has found ways to improve upon.
For future storms the company plans to have a dedicated team to work on FEMA reimbursement. So far, LCEC hasn’t received any money from its sizable request submitted to FEMA.
“It’s approximately $30 million. So it’s pretty big,” Ryan said.
Gas shortages remain a challenge
Fuel shortages could continue to be a challenge, especially when there’s a storm the size of Irma, forcing mass evacuations and shutting down major ports across the state.
One solution could be to build gasoline storage reserves in Florida as was done in New York after Sandy hit in 2012, but the idea isn’t as simple as it sounds and comes with environmental concerns, said Patrick DeHaan, a senior petroleum analyst with GasBuddy.
There are concerns about everything from the risks of spilling to the risks of spoiling.
“The problem with gasoline is that you constantly have to turn over that supply,” DeHaan said. “Gasoline has a shelf life of approximately two months. So there is a lot of complexity with what New York chose to do.”
The Florida Department of Transportation has identified critical refueling stations along major evacuation routes and continues to work with others to improve the efficiency of fuel distribution services during emergencies, said Ed Seifert, the department’s interim communications director, in an email.
“The department has assessed capacity and will continue to keep department maintained fuel storage sites full during hurricane season to support first responders,” he said.
The department continues to look at options for additional fuel storage and dispensing at fuel terminals in collaboration with Florida ports and the fuel industry, following a directive from Gov. Rick Scott.
FDOT is also working on ways to better address evacuation gridlock on the roads.
In a news release in February, Scott said the short- and long-term improvements he’s asked the Florida Department of Transportation to pursue will “ensure that Florida continues to be a national leader in emergency management and solely focused on keeping families safe.”
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