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Sunday Conversation: Tampa public works director Irvin Lee talks about dealing with Tropical Storm Debby

Irvin Lee, pictured here during a staff meeting in Tampa on Thursday, says Tropical Storm Debby was one of those “in-between kinds of storms, the ones that aren’t as well defined, that often cause us the most problems in terms of response.”
Irvin Lee, pictured here during a staff meeting in Tampa on Thursday, says Tropical Storm Debby was one of those “in-between kinds of storms, the ones that aren’t as well defined, that often cause us the most problems in terms of response.”
Published Jul. 14, 2012


Irvin Lee is paying attention every time rain falls on Tampa. As the city's public works director, he takes charge of managing infamous flood zones. He clears roads for safe routes to emergency facilities. And when it all blows over, he sends crews to sweep up the aftermath. ¶ As the region was drying out after Tropical Storm Debby, Tampa Bay Times staff writer Stephanie Wang asked Lee about his professional and personal storm preparations.

What are you and your staff doing before, during and after a big storm?

If it's a hurricane or a declared event, we have checklists and we have procedures that are very well defined. The weather forecasting has advanced to be fairly accurate so we know not only where but when a storm might hit. So we really are able to budget our time and plan how we're going to respond.

Tropical Storm Debby kind of caught us off-guard. It's those in-between kinds of storms, the ones that aren't as well defined, that often cause us the most problems in terms of response. We don't know whether to commit fully or not.

For Debby, once we realized it — to use a phrase from the old Casablanca movie — we rounded up the usual suspects. There are locations here in town that we know are just historically flood-prone areas. And they're not just in South Tampa. We've got them in North Tampa, West Tampa. We try to go to those areas and make sure our storm drains and inlets are clear. If we have retention ponds, we try to pump them down and move stormwater to other areas. In terms of preparation, we realize it's a marathon and not necessarily a sprint.

So why can't we fix the streets where we know there are flooding problems?

This is Florida — it's flat! It's really a timing issue. Sometimes we just get more water than the systems can handle. Our stormwater engineering division tries to come up with strategies that will buy us more time. Most of that stormwater in the region is headed either to the river or the bay. Sometimes taking that direct route may cause flash floods or may cause a little standing water in a location. So what we try to do is mitigate some of those situations, where you use a pond or something to try to delay the rise of that water in a particular location and handle it within our system. So eventually, we can get it to where we want it to go or let it naturally percolate back in.

There is no one-size-fits-all silver bullet that will solve every challenge. We put the right kind of engineering with the right solution in the right place to buy us some time.

I heard your wife (Chandra) volunteers for the Red Cross. You must be the most prepared family ever.

When we were stationed over at MacDill, my family evacuated during the hurricanes of 2004. They evacuated three times. After we left MacDill, we went to San Antonio, Texas, and we were there when (Hurricane) Katrina hit, so my wife volunteered at a Red Cross shelter, helping people who were displaced by that storm. It's something that she has a passion for. There's definitely a sensitivity there and a healthy respect for adverse weather.

It even goes back further than that. We were in Saudi Arabia before the Gulf War — this was back in 1989 — and when Saddam (Hussein) invaded Kuwait, my wife was evacuated out. I think she's getting this evacuation thing down. Now I think she's hoping we have all that behind us.

What kind of emergency supplies do you keep in your car?

I have the standard kinds of things you have in your car: flares, Fix-A-Flat, things like that. I carry a safety vest in the event that if I have to pull up on something and have to get out.

In terms of home preparations, the first thing is just having a plan. If we're asked to evacuate, we know where we're headed. We have relatives in Georgia. I'd stay here and man the EOC (Emergency Operations Center) until it dries out.

This is one of the things I keep saying that I'm going to buy: There's a company in Clearwater that makes these huge heavy-duty plastic water jugs. You put them in your bathtub and you fill them with water and they have a little pump on them. That's a handy thing to have around to have additional water. When your electricity's out — I help other people do this and I keep saying one of these days I'll do it myself — I don't own a generator. Electricity and water are the two most important things people can have.

Anything else you want to add?

We catch people at their most stressful, most critical time. We're trying to support the citizens and get them back as safe as possible. With Debby, it was a great partnership. Our heavy equipment was almost useless trying to clean up that muck. The Parks and Rec crews actually raked some of the stuff off the side of the roads, off the sidewalks, particularly on Bayshore. It was great teamwork, and that's what we'll probably find, heaven forbid, if we have to deal with a hurricane. Let's think dry thoughts.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.