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Hurricane 2019: Tampa Bay’s top cops fear for those who stay behind

Many ignore evacuation orders. Law enforcement officials say they may not be able to rescue them when things get bad.
Pinellas County sheriff's deputies restrict access to St. Pete Beach after evacuating the area for Hurricane Irma in September 2017. [Times 2017]
Published Jun. 6
Updated Jun. 11

The region’s top law enforcement commanders talked to the Tampa Bay Times about the worst case scenarios they most fear if a major storm were to strike the bay area.

A common fear: What happens if residents who live in evacuation zones ignore orders to leave?

It may become too dangerous for officers to rescue them, the bay area’s top police leaders said — those people could find themselves on their own.

HURRICANE SEASON IS HERE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane

It’s a concern that takes Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister back to 2017 and Hurricane Irma:

As Irma’s winds started to roar into Hillsborough and conditions became too dangerous for first responders, calls for help continued to come in from areas that should have been evacuated, Chronister said.

Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister speaks at a 2018 news conference. [Times 2018]

Deputies responded to some calls anyway. In one case, a deputy took a woman suffering a medical emergency to the hospital. In another case, deputies responded to a call for a help for a woman in medical distress, but they didn’t get there in time. The woman had died before they arrived.

That shouldn’t happen, the sheriff said.

“We were putting out those warnings, if you meet these criteria, here’s where you can go shelter in place that will be able to facilitate your needs,” Chronister said. “There were some people who waited until it was too late and unfortunately it came at the agony of losing a loved one.”

HURRICANE MICHAEL: LESSONS LEARNED

911 calls from Hurricane Michael paint horrifying picture of what it’s like to not evacuate

What the Panhandle’s top emergency officials learned from Michael

‘We’re not going to give up.’ What a school superintendent learned from Michael.

Residents who don’t evacuate low-lying areas could wind up stranded on their roofs waiting for rescue. The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has a fleet of boats and high water vehicles to send out after the storm and has been practicing rescuing people on the ground using the winch on its new Airbus H125 helicopter.

“Luckily, we live in a county where we have the assets,” Chronister said. “God forbid we ever have to deploy them, but the deputies and the employees are ready to use them.”

The less residents who need that kind of help the better. The sheriff urged residents to come up with an evacuation plan before the storm approaches, and this time they should heed calls to leave.

Pinellas: Coastal residents can’t stay

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri also worries about those his agency won’t be able to save.

A powerful hurricane will bring storm surge, a major concern for a county nearly surrounded by water. That’s why coastal residents must heed evacuation orders, he said, or risk being stranded and isolated at the worst possible time.

“We’re a water community,” he said. “If they’re underwater out there, there’s nothing we’re going to be able to do for them.”

The most vulnerable areas are the barrier island cities, many of which have contracted with Gualtieri’s agency for law enforcement services. That’s on top of his jurisdiction over unincorporated parts of the county.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, right, recommends the county order a level A mandatory evacuation as Hurricane Irma approaches during an emergency county commission in September 2017. [Times 2017]

The sheriff said his agency will continue educating the public about heeding evacuation warnings. He also stressed the importance of signing up for the agency’s barrier island re-entry program, which requires beach residents and business owners to register in advance to receive special passes that will allow them back into evacuated areas after a storm (register at www.pcsoweb.com/emergency-access-permit). He wants to keep potential burglars and looters from accessing empty homes and businesses.

Beyond that, Gualtieri said, all his agency can do is keep reminding residents of what they should do before a storm.

“There’s no magic to it,” he said. “There’s nothing more we can do other than to keep reiterating and keep messaging it.”

Gualtieri’s other concern is how his deputies will communicate after a storm passes. The Sheriff’s Office has one portable, generator-powered radio tower.

But the sheriff said they would need four or five to cover the county.

Hernando: Don’t wait until it’s too late

Hernando Sheriff Al Nienhuis said one of his agency’s biggest fears is that residents won’t heed initial warnings about how strong a storm might be.

“With that being said, many individuals wait too long to either prepare and/or to evacuate,” he said in an email. “When (not if) they do make the decision to evacuate, it’s usually too late and they have to stay and ride out the storm. Once conditions deteriorate to a very severe state, it is no longer safe for first responders to be on the roads.”

Clearwater: Police need shelter, too

The police station that Clearwater chief Dan Slaughter and his roughly 250 employees call home looks sturdy on a sunny day. But Slaughter knows its limits.

The building at 645 Pierce St. can’t withstand a storm more powerful than a Category 2. But he and his officers have to stay put during a storm to make sure they’re ready to respond once it passes.

“When the eye of the storm comes over Clearwater, I have 180 employees that are on duty,” he said. “Where do I put them to sleep is the thing that causes me the most concern.”

Clearwater Police Chief Dan Slaughter. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]

The city’s long-range plan includes a proposal to renovate the city’s District 3 substation on McMullen Booth Road and harden it to withstand Category 5 winds, which is 157 mph or greater. But that’s still several years out, the chief said.

Until then, the department is looking at newer city buildings, such as a gas utility building or one of the libraries, for police staff to hunker down in. They need to be close to the areas they’ll be deployed to after a storm.

“We’ve got to have them here because the moment that the eye passes over, like you saw with Irma, it becomes very fast-paced,” he said.

Slaughter also implored residents to make sure they have enough food, water and other necessities to last several days. Good preparation takes some pressure off first-responders in the aftermath of a storm, he said.

“We’ve had years where we’ve never had anything,” the chief said, “and they (residents) get complacent.”

Pasco: There’s a plan for jail inmates

The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, likes its counterparts, also runs the county jail and is responsible for caring for those inmates during a storm. The county projects the inmate population could be as high as 2,368 by the end of 2020.

Sheriff’s spokesman Kevin Doll said the agency has mutual-aid agreements with jails outside the county to move inmates to and from the Land O’ Lakes Detention Center.

But if a storm does come ashore, he said the jail is “one of the safest places to be in the county during a hurricane.”

The main part of the jail is rated for wind speeds of 100 mph, and the newest addition can withstand 120 MPH winds.

Sheriff’s director of emergency management Sharon Russell said her agency’s biggest fear is the unknown.

“We can plan for everything else,” she said in an email. “We’re actively partnering with county officials, other governmental agencies, with other (law enforcement) agencies and community groups (local, state, fed, nationally) to share ideas, build a comprehensive list of resources, assets and equipment to understand our response capabilities and be as prepared as we can be to help the citizens of Pasco County.”


2019 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide

HURRICANE SEASON IS HERE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane

PREPARE YOUR STUFF: Get your documents and your data ready for a storm

BUILD YOUR KIT: The stuff you’ll need to stay safe — and comfortable — for the storm

PROTECT YOUR PETS: Your pets can’t get ready for a storm. That’s your job

NEED TO KNOW: Click here to find your evacuation zone and shelter


What Michael taught the Panhandle and Tampa Bay

What the Panhandle’s top emergency officials learned from Michael

‘We’re not going to give up.’ What a school superintendent learned from Michael.

What Tampa Bay school leaders fear most from a storm

Tampa Bay’s top cops fear for those who stay behind

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