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When Tampa Bay was in Hurricane Ian’s crosshairs, how did we do?

Officials cite lessons learned from Hurricane Irma, and one gives local preparations an “A plus, plus, plus.”
Hurricane Ian damaged the sign outside the County Center building in downtown Tampa, but the Tampa Bay area ducked the full force of the deadly storm. [
Hurricane Ian damaged the sign outside the County Center building in downtown Tampa, but the Tampa Bay area ducked the full force of the deadly storm. [ [ MATT COHEN | Times ]
Published Oct. 1

For Tampa Bay, Hurricane Ian had to be the scariest near-miss yet.

Intensive preparation for a deadly storm that ultimately did not come here was a dress rehearsal for if — or when — a future hurricane has Tampa Bay in its crosshairs.

So how did the region do? And what could be done better next time?

Some local leaders were effusive about the dry run.

“We came together and were ready, truly ready, for what would’ve been a catastrophic event” for Tampa Bay, Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton said Wednesday night as it became clear the region had missed the worst of it.

“Right now I would give an A plus, plus, plus to everyone in the community,” said Hillsborough Schools Superintendent Addison Davis.

Officials cited lessons learned from Hurricane Irma, which aimed for their counties before shifting south and hitting Marco Island in 2017.

Hurricane Irma drained some waterways across the Tampa Bay area, much like Ian, including the north end of Hillsborough Bay along Bayshore Boulevard. People took advantage of the chance to walk where they're used to seeing water. 
[ANASTASIA DAWSON   |   Times]
Hurricane Irma drained some waterways across the Tampa Bay area, much like Ian, including the north end of Hillsborough Bay along Bayshore Boulevard. People took advantage of the chance to walk where they're used to seeing water. [ANASTASIA DAWSON | Times] [ DAWSON, ANASTASIA | Tampa Bay Times ]

“The one thing we really focused on this time was our vulnerable areas, which was the mandatory evacuation zones,” said Tampa Police Chief Mary O’Connor. Her officers “knocked on everybody in (mandatory evacuation zones) A and B’s doors three times.”

But shelters weren’t exactly inundated. While 5,000 people showed up to Pinellas shelters for Ian, 22,000 went for Irma. Hillsborough shelters saw nearly 9,000 people last week, while Irma brought 28,000.

Pasco Emergency Management Director Andrew Fossa said he expected more participation. The mandatory evacuation order called for approximately 70,000 residents west of U.S. 19 to leave. Approximately 1,000 people came to the 10 schools opened as shelters for the general public.

“I think it’s complacency that will always be the issue with citizens in the state of Florida,” Fossa said.

Other local leaders said residents did not appear to have been flouting warnings and evacuation orders in large numbers.

The beaches had “a huge law enforcement presence” and were empty by Wednesday, Burton said.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said that, based on his drives around the county and what he heard from deputies and police chiefs, it did not seem many residents had hunkered down in evacuation zones. “You saw nothing at all out there,” he said.

“A lot of people I heard were going to friends or family,” said Tampa Mayor Jane Castor.

Allen Silke, 33, left, helps his brother’s family, Isabella, 4, JP, 8 and Heather, 35, load their belongings as they evacuated from their Tampa home September 27 as Hurricane Ian approached. Heather Silke said Allen planned to take in the family’s dogs as they sheltered with family friends in Riverview.
Allen Silke, 33, left, helps his brother’s family, Isabella, 4, JP, 8 and Heather, 35, load their belongings as they evacuated from their Tampa home September 27 as Hurricane Ian approached. Heather Silke said Allen planned to take in the family’s dogs as they sheltered with family friends in Riverview. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Local officials noted changes large and small this time around.

Transportation for marginalized residents improved with Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority bus service and free Uber rides to evacuate, said Pinellas Commissioner Rene Flowers. Hillsborough had similar service.

During Irma, Pinellas County’s would-be fortress of an emergency operations center leaked extensively due to shoddy construction. Five years later, after a lawsuit that ended in a settlement and repairs, it held up and the hundreds of employees inside stayed dry.

Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister said deputies got chainsaw training to go out with utility companies to blocked roads and downed powerlines.

The Sheriff’s Office also had a plan for when the weather got intense and regular service had to be suspended: When the night winds reached 48 mph and a tree fell on a resident, a specialized Tactical Search and Rescue team got to him and took him to the hospital, and he survived, Chronister said.

Pinellas schools Superintendent Kevin Hendrick said streamlined communications using Microsoft Teams — now familiar because of its wide use in the pandemic — made shelter operations run more efficiently.

Pinellas added step-down shelters for people who need extra help, including homeless people and those with special medical needs. At shelters set up in schools, everyone has to leave as soon as possible so students can return, but at step-down shelters in community centers, people can stay longer and connect with social services.

Before Ian turned east, Pinellas Director of Emergency Management Cathie Perkins urged tourists, residents in low-lying areas and people in 99 long-term care facilities in evacuation zones to get out before official evacuation orders. When she learned the healthcare facilities wouldn’t budge without an order, she moved up the timeline.

“Sometimes people need to hear that: ‘mandatory evacuation,’” she said.

Several officials credited cooperation among agencies.

“Local, regional, state and federal collaboration was very good,” said Castor, one of the three local mayors who got a call from President Joe Biden as Ian churned off Florida’s coast.

Officials say they’re focusing on next time.

By Wednesday night, Pinellas County Administrator Burton was thinking about adding more shelter staff, building an evacuation zone web page that won’t crash and expanding sandbag operations so residents don’t wait in miles-long lines.

“Our public messaging, I think, is on spot,” said Fossa in Pasco. “But I think we need to be a little more stern with the messaging to be more direct to the citizens that yes, this is coming.”

St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch said attention needs to stay on infrastructure. While investments in stormwater systems have made the region better prepared, a direct hit would have forced the shutdown of two of the city’s wastewater plants, he said.

“Ten feet of storm surge and another 10 inches of rain, no structure is built for that,” Welch said. “We’re going to have to focus on building up that infrastructure.”

And what about the continuing scenario of residents reluctant to leave because the last storm headed this way didn’t make a direct hit here?

Jake Moses, 19, left, and Heather Jones, 18, of Fort Myers, explore a section of destroyed businesses at Fort Myers Beach, Fla., on Thursday, Sep 29, 2022, following Hurricane Ian. (Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times via AP)
Jake Moses, 19, left, and Heather Jones, 18, of Fort Myers, explore a section of destroyed businesses at Fort Myers Beach, Fla., on Thursday, Sep 29, 2022, following Hurricane Ian. (Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times via AP) [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | AP ]

“My response is: Just take a couple minutes and look at the photos and videos from South Florida,” where Ian did hit, said Castor. “That’s why you need to leave, right there.”

“We dodged a nuke,” said Pasco County Administrator Mike Carballa.

Times staff writers Jeffrey S. Solochek, Marlene Sokol, Sam Ogozalek, Dan Sullivan and Divya Kumar contributed to this report.

• • •

Tampa Bay Times Hurricane coverage

TAMPA BAY CLOSURES: What to know about bridges, roads in Ian’s aftermath

WHEN THE STORM HAS PASSED: Now what? Safety tips for returning home.

POST-STORM QUESTIONS: After Hurricane Ian, how to get help with fallen trees, food, damaged shelter.

WEATHER EFFECTS: Hurricane Ian was supposed to slam Tampa Bay head on. What happened?

WHAT TO DO IF HURRICANE DAMAGES YOUR HOME: Stay calm, then call your insurance company.

SCHOOLS: Will schools reopen quickly after Hurricane Ian passes? It depends.

SELF-CARE: Protect your mental health during a hurricane.

IT’S STORM SEASON: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.

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