Friday, December 15, 2017
Tampa Bay Weather

Tampa police relieved to see Hurricane Irma less than billed

TAMPA — It was past 3 a.m. when the police lieutenant, bleary-eyed and exhausted, struck a downed power line with the edge of his SUV. In the rain and darkness of Hurricane Irma's pass through Tampa, he hadn't seen it.

He put in a call over the radio. A patrol car came to guard the downed line at Manhattan Avenue and Interbay Boulevard. Lt. Rich Mills rolled onward, listening for emergency calls, looking for more damage.

But as dawn broke and the clouds cleared Monday, Tampa's police were relieved to find this was far less than the catastrophe for which they had braced.

"We dodged a major bullet," Mills said. "We're dealing with what we're dealing with, but this is nothing."

The entirety of the Tampa Police Department's 1,000 officers spent the worst parts of the storm holed up at Raymond James Stadium, Busch Gardens, their district offices, and elsewhere. They were working in two shifts — day and night.

They eyed news coverage throughout the day Sunday, as they balanced preparation for the storm with response to their regular calls for service. They had prepared for a major rescue and recovery effort. They were joined by troops from MacDill Air Force Base who brought amphibious vehicles. They expected to be wading into high waters Monday in South Tampa, Davis and Harbor Islands, and Palmetto Beach.

When winds topped 40 mph at about 9 p.m., officers left the streets, Mills said. They still had armored vehicles that could respond to major incidents. The only one, Mills said, involved a mentally challenged man who was threatening harm to a family member. The call was resolved peacefully.

"Believe it or not, not to sound egotistical, there really were no difficult situations," he said.

The lieutenant attributed that to two things: the department's well-practiced hurricane plan, and the community's cooperation.

They train for natural disasters. They practice with major events like conventions and sports games. All of it helps. It also helps that citizens evacuated, he said.

"The community was actually very good," he said. "Everybody took heed of what we were telling them."

Then Irma made landfall at Marco Island, further south than expected. Its winds died down as it began its long trudge up the Gulf coast. By the time it reach Tampa after 1 a.m., it had weakened significantly.

"About 2:30 or 3 o'clock was when we said 'okay, we're going to get through this,' " Mills said.

As cops returned to the streets in the early morning hours, they were relieved to see the worst damage consisted of fallen trees and broken power lines.

Hours after dawn, Mills rolled through South Tampa, quietly moving large branches and palm fronds and broken barricades off of streets. He checked in with his troops, stationed in the places with the worst damage. Some of them had worked five days straight. Mills, who came into work Friday, got two hours sleep Sunday, and four hours the night before.

"The sooner we get back to normal, the happier we all are," he said.

For the police, that will probably happen late Monday night, when they return to their regular work schedule.

At about noon, Mills drove along the westbound side of the Courtney Campbell Causeway, where officers were still blocking intersections. A tree had fallen on a power line on the Clearwater side. The line came to rest on a guardrail, which was electrified. Crews were working to get it fixed.

Mills put out a call to tell everyone that the bridge was still closed. Then, he kept driving past the breaking waves.

"Still a little choppy out there," he said.

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