As Hurricane Ian approached Florida, Pinellas County went quiet. The county ordered some 440,000 residents to evacuate and braced itself for a brutal hit — a foot or more of rain, 10 feet of storm surge, high winds and scattered tornadoes were all in the forecast.
Instead, residents here got a little wind, a little rain and power outages but little damage after the storm shifted to the east and left a trail of death and destruction in Southwest Florida. Pinellas emerged nearly unscathed.
Since then, local officials have been taking stock of the storm. The Tampa Bay Times obtained a draft of the county report that gets at the storm’s local effects by the numbers, what the county can learn from the storm and what it still doesn’t know.
It begins with an assertion of how much worse the storm — the fourth-deadliest hurricane since 1980 and third-costliest in modern history — could have been here.
“Pinellas County dodged a devastating bomb of impacts,” it reads.
Here are three takeaways from the report.
An ill-prepared population?
The county opened 25 shelters to house residents before and during Ian, the most here for a single storm since 1985, when 70 were opened ahead of Hurricane Elena.
But county numbers show strikingly few residents preparing for the storm, at least with county resources. Those 25 shelters took in just more than 5,000 people, less than a quarter of the shelter occupancy during Hurricane Irma in 2017. The county gave out 54,000 sandbags, just over one-tenth of what it distributed ahead of Irma. The County Information Center, which takes emergency questions by phone, fielded about 14,000 — one-fifth of what it received in Irma. The report also notes that “the usual traffic jams encountered during large scale evacuations” were nowhere to be seen.
What happened? Five months later, the county still has no answer. As the report notes, a University of South Florida study on what decisions people made before the storm and why is still ongoing. County Emergency Management Director Cathie Perkins told the County Commission last month that she’s also waiting on information from the state, including Department of Transportation and cellphone data, that could shed more light on how people behaved before the storm.
“I think one of our greatest challenges with the community is communicating risk,” she said in that meeting.
A little damage
For many Pinellas residents, the primary inconvenience of Ian was being left in the dark: Duke Energy and the Tampa Electric Co. ultimately tallied about 200,000 combined outages, about a third of their customers in Pinellas.
A residential assessment after the storm found 257 homes with damage. No homes were destroyed, and 35 were classified as having “major” damage. The Federal Emergency Management Agency received 40,000 requests in Pinellas for individual assistance, for which it disbursed $22 million, or about $550 per person.
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The county itself reported about $23 million in damage to FEMA’s public assistance program, which aids state and local governments with disaster expenses. Most of that was for protective measures; debris removal cost about $1 million.
A learning experience
The report praises several aspects of the county’s preparation: its coordination with the Pinellas County School Board and Clerk of the Circuit Court and Comptroller’s Office on shelter preparation and staffing; the evacuations of hospitals and other health care facilities; its expansion of communication efforts to include flyers handed out at mobile home communities; and an increased use of sign-language interpreters.
It also finds room for improvement. Two pages of the report are taken up with suggestions for future storm preparation. They include changes to the county’s Know Your Zone webpage, which crashed ahead of the storm under the weight of so many people looking up their flood zones. It also prescribes research to eliminate shelters in potential storm surge zones; routine testing of generators at all county facilities; and work to fill in child care gaps for employees who have to work during emergencies.