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  1. Hurricane

Pasco residents, officials use Irma's lessons for upcoming hurricane plans

MICHELE MILLER | Times (2017) After Hurricane Irma in 2017 came the surge and flooding in the Elfers community in New Port Richey where residents were under mandatory evacuation orders.
Published Jul. 10, 2018

NEW PORT RICHEY — Melissa Detwiler, a resident of Seven Springs Trailer Park, bought her travel trailer in May 2017. When Hurricane Irma hit in September, she left it on the highest ground in the park and evacuated to Orlando.

She and her trailer were fine, but she had to wait a week for flooding to subside in the neighborhood before she could come back.

If she could change it, she would have gone further northward, possibly to stay with friends in Indiana.

Her advice to people in areas prone to flooding or large storms: Make a plan, so when the county announces an evacuation, you know what to do.

Pasco County estimated it spent nearly $9 million on Irma, including $4.6 million for debris removal, $1.4 million on roads and the cost of cleaning schools used as shelters, according to previous Tampa Bay Times reporting. Nearly 48,000 people registered for individual household assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and 510 families sought temporary shelter assistance.

With Atlantic hurricane season in full swing, residents and county officials are using Irma's lessons to plan for this year.

The biggest change this season for Pasco County is a new storm surge and evacuation zone map. The 2018 map moves thousands of residences into new evacuation zones. Specifically, the federal government added 5,707 residents to Zone A — the first to be evacuated — and moved 21,342 residents up to Zone D from Zone E.

Zone A now goes slightly east of US Highway 19, said Laura Wilcoxen, Pasco's assistant director for emergency management.

Maps are available on the Pasco County website and in Pasco's 2018 disaster guide that will be released within the next week.

New federal data based on storm surge patterns helped reshape evacuation zones, Wilcoxen said.

"It's a deciding tool for us, if we have to call for an evacuation," Wilcoxen said.

When evacuating, Wilcoxen said to evacuate tens of miles, not hundreds.

"We're just trying to get them out of that possible storm surge area," Wilcoxen said.

It's important to plan to be in a building away from a storm surge area that's sturdy enough to withstand winds. More newly-build homes farther inland are best, she added.

Each tropical storm is different. Some are rain makers while others are wind makers.

"Remember, hide from the wind, and run from the water," Wilcoxen said.

People should make plans well before a storm hits, said Tambrey Laine, Pasco County communications manager, whether that's making an emergency kit or deciding where to stay during an evacuation.

"If you have those conversations today, instead of the day a storm comes, everyone can be on the same page," Laine said. "It keeps roads a little more open for people who don't have that."

If you can't evacuate, shelters are available throughout the county.

During Hurricane Irma, Pasco County opened 26 shelters for more than 24,100 residents. The county recently paid the school district almost $1.5 million for use of schools as shelters during that storm. Last year was the first year the county worked with the school district to provide shelters.

The county has 30 locations that could be used as shelters, depending on the size and location of the storm.

The county is reminding people that registering with a special-needs shelter is not a reservation. Signing up is merely a way for the county to know how many people to expect. Last year, some people presumed incorrectly they had a space reserved, Wilcoxen said. Special-needs shelters are for people who require medically-related care, such as the use of oxygen.

Residents need to expect to take care of themselves while at a shelter, Wilcoxen said. Some food may be provided, but residents should bring something to sleep on, a change of clothes and any important documents.

A shelter is a "life raft, not a cruise," Wilcoxen said.

The biggest thing Joe Mayer, Seven Springs Travel Park owner, learned from Hurricane Irma was that his plans and policies worked.

Mayer has owned the park for 42 years. He said he hasn't seen storms stronger than Hurricane Irma, but he has seen some that were similar.

When a storm is expected, Mayer monitors area hydrographs on government websites to check for flood levels. If it looks like the park is going to flood, he turns off electrical systems and moves travel trailers out of flood-prone areas.

He said there's normally a major flood in his park at least once every summer. Mayer's advice to his residents is to heed his warnings.

For anyone in the area, his advice is a little different.

"Be prepared to be self-sufficient for two weeks," Mayer said.

In a major storm, it takes at least two weeks for infrastructure to be up and running, Mayer said. During that time, it's difficult for any emergency vehicle to get to you.

Contact Laurel Demkovich at ldemkovich@tampabay.com. Follow @LaurelDemkovich.

RELATED: (The remnants of Hurricane Irma in Pasco)

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