Sunday's overnight fears turned into anxiety Monday as millions of Floridians began the tough slog of recovering from Irma, the first hurricane to strike Tampa Bay since 1921. Though we were spared a direct hit when the eye itself veered east, the upending of lives and damage to property are still serious. Federal, state and local authorities performed well in preparing the state before Irma, and they need to show the same vigilance and forward thinking in the time ahead to help Florida recover from this natural disaster.
There's no doubt it could have been worse. A storm that spent most of its life as a record-setting Category 5 hurricane first made landfall in Florida early Sunday as a Category 4 near Cudjoe Key. The storm later made landfall near Marco Island, at Category 3 strength, before moving up the southwest coast and weakening to a Category 2 before jogging east toward Lakeland, brushing Tampa Bay as a Category 1. The bay area was spared the brunt of the storm as Irma moved quickly north, weakening along the way. But it cut a devastating swath across the lower half of the state and impacted millions even beyond its expansive wind cone.
Gov. Rick Scott and state and local authorities did a good job of readying Floridians in advance of Irma by staying visible and on-message about the threats to life and after-storm impacts. They will need to bring the same focus to several key areas is the coming days:
• Emergency assistance. Irma's punch and wide reach could make it difficult to fully assess the scope of the devastation for days. The Federal Emergency Management Agency needs to quickly deploy its resources and ensure the basics — shelter, water, food and sanitation — are readily available in the affected areas. The hot, rainy summer season is still here and people need help in bringing order to their lives. The power companies appear poised to respond well, but the state will need to ensure that service is restored in a reasonable manner. Neighborhoods without power need extra security patrols. This is no time for desperate residents to take matters into their hands out of a feeling that the government has forgotten them.
• Back to normal. More than 6 million people were called upon to evacuate, and millions will be on the road in the days ahead, inching back to uncertainty. State and local authorities need to move this traffic in a safe and timely manner and ensure that gas supplies are distributed across the state. In the bay area alone, tens of thousands sought emergency shelter; many will face special needs as they move from hardened shelters to homes and neighborhoods damaged by the storm. Authorities need to ensure these residents are safe and able to move about to meet their daily needs.
• Insurance and gouging. Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Attorney General Pam Bondi have been proactive in helping homeowners prepare to file insurance claims and to protect consumers from price gouging. They'll need to stay on both issues. Irma will test the good faith and capabilities of the newly formed insurance companies, which have a public obligation to handle claims in a fair and timely manner. Given the duration of a rebuilding effort, Bondi's office needs to protect against fraud in the hardest-hit areas over the long term.
It was a harrowing weekend and this week will be tough. The rebuilding process will take time, money and a sense of urgency at all levels of government. But the storm is behind us, and it's time to pick up the pieces and to make the recovery as fast and smooth as possible.