Thursday, December 14, 2017
Tampa Bay Weather

Hurricane season could have been worse, but still caused damage in Tampa Bay area

The calls came in the middle of night as Hurricane Hermine's winds howled across Pasco County's coast, rattling homes.

The storm stayed far enough off the Gulf Coast so mandatory evacuations weren't needed, but about 20 residents got nervous and phoned for help. A new county task force was ready to ferry them to shelters.

"We figured when the winds started coming we'd have people calling and saying, 'I'm scared, come get me,' " said Kevin Guthrie, Pasco's director of emergency services. "That was brand new, and it seemed to work really well."

The task force's success was one of many local lessons learned from the relatively busy 2016 Atlantic hurricane season, which ends today.

With 15 named storms, including the first hurricane to make landfall in Florida in 11 years and a Category 5 monster that buzz-sawed up the east coast, emergency officials say they're relieved the bay area didn't get hit harder. Of the three storms that touched or landed in Florida and caused local emergency management operations centers to activate — Tropical Storm Colin and hurricanes Hermine and Matthew — the bay area received glancing blows.

Many local residents suffered big losses, though, and Pasco County bore the brunt of the season during Hermine. A final tally was still being calculated with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but a preliminary estimate by the county put the damage to residential structures at more than $100 million, as well as $40 million to $50 million for commercial property and public infrastructure such as roads, making it one of the costliest disasters in Pasco history.

The storm destroyed about two dozen homes and caused major damage to about 300, according to the county's initial review. Hardest hit were residents flooded out by Hermine's storm surge or by the swollen Anclote River.

The outsized impact in Pasco is reflected in the number of victims seeking help from the federal government.

By last week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had processed 912 registrations for financial assistance and approved nearly $1.5 million in grants to make essential repairs to homes. That's by far the most in the Tampa Bay area, and those numbers are sure to rise, FEMA officials said.

Pasco residents are also getting the most help from the Small Business Administration, which provides low-interest loans for repairs to businesses, homeowners and renters. As of Nov. 21, the SBA had approved nearly $1.1 million in loans in Pasco — also the most in the area — and an amount that is expected to increase "considerably," an agency spokesman said.

But that money could go further with more help from the federal government, Guthrie said.

County officials are asking FEMA to provide a $200,000 grant to Pasco Rebuilds Together. Operating under the United Way, the group brings victims together to boost their buying power by pooling assistance money and purchasing building supplies in bulk. Pasco Rebuilds then provides volunteer labor for repairs.

The work requires a staff to manage cases, but money ran out last month, Guthrie said.

"That's the one area in our recovery that I wish we were doing better at, but we're strapped for funding," he said. "That $200,000 would go a long way."

The busy season also gave emergency operations officials a chance to "knock the rust off" their responses and test new technology, said Sally Bishop, Pinellas County's emergency management director.

"We do internal training, but there's nothing like having to implement it for real," Bishop said.

The storms, she said, got more residents acquainted with notification systems like the recently rebranded Alert Pinellas, which sends voice and text messages to subscribers. The county also reached more than 30,000 people through NextDoor, a social network for neighborhoods.

In Hillsborough County, a scary episode allowed officials to test an improved mapping system to track damage better.

Wind gusts in on one of Hermine's bands tore through Valrico, damaging or destroying 45 structures including several homes in the Town and Country Mobile Home Park that were crushed or sliced open by fallen oak trees. The county used a beefed-up geographic information system that puts more data on electronic maps displayed in the emergency operations center, said Michael Ryan, Hillsborough's manager of emergency planning.

"It really helps for situational awareness and gives you a visual to allocate your resources better," Ryan said.

The monstrous Matthew reached Category 5 status and stayed far enough east to make it a nonevent for the Tampa Bay area. But the storm provided two important lessons, officials said.

Coming about a month after Hermine, Matthew gave government agencies and departments, along with utility companies and other responders, another chance to work together at emergency operations centers.

"The relationships are so much stronger now," Ryan said. "They're coming into a room where they recognize people and that brings down their stress level, and when your stress level is lower you can work more effectively and more efficiently."

Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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