TAMPA — After days of preparing for devastating winds and flooding, a surprisingly manageable Hurricane Irma left Hillsborough County officials feeling "blessed," "relieved" and grateful Monday.
The county did not escape unscathed. Falling trees destroyed about a dozen homes, Hillsborough County Fire Rescue Chief Dennis Jones said, but caused no fatalities. Wind gusts caused little structural damage but left more than 300,000 homes in the county without power as of 11 a.m. A storm surge proved nonexistent but rainfall could cause river flooding Monday afternoon.
On the whole, it was less than what agencies expected.
"It could have been much worse," County Administrator Mike Merrill said. Jones called it "very little damage."
The biggest remaining threat is river flooding. Between 6 and 9 inches of rain fell across the county, which could cause record high water levels in the Little Manatee and Alafia rivers, said Preston Cook, the county's director of emergency management.
"We need people to be aware that today these rivers are going to rise very rapidly, and they're going to stay up for a few days," Cook said.
In preparation, Fire-Rescue has water rescue teams active Monday and will for days afterwards, Jones said.
Agencies are still assessing how safe the roadways are, Merrill said, and until told otherwise residents should stay inside their homes.
He said the assessment process should wrap up mid-day Monday and then the county can begin looking at releasing people from shelters. Nearly 29,000 people are in the county's 45 shelters. He said he wants to get them home as soon as possible.
"We know that it's been a struggle for them," he said.
People who got there on a HART bus can take one home once the roads are clear and buses can get in position, HART Chief Executive Katharine Eagan said. She said those who took a Sunshine Line bus should make sure to check out with their shelter before boarding.
Releasing people from shelters will be the first step in determining when Hillsborough County Public schools can re-open, Schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins said. He'll make a decision on whether they will open Tuesday on Monday night or early Tuesday morning and says he views open schools as a key sign that "life is getting back to normal."
Many residents who weathered the storm at home are dealing with power outages. About 40 percent of TECO customers are without power, Tampa Electric spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs said. She said crews are in the field checking out the damage and repairing lines.
"We know that's key to getting life back to normal," she said.
No trash, recycling or yard waste will be collected Monday, Public Works Director John Lyons said. He expects a plan for yard waste to be announced Monday afternoon for those with fallen branches or trees on their property.
Contact Langston Taylor at [email protected] Follow @langstonitaylor