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Hurricane Irma: What we learned

As evacuees showed up at shelters with their pets, local officials learned a lesson about the importance of  planning for pets as part of hurricane preparation. Here Samantha Belk says goodbye to her maltese, Gardolf, until after the hurricane in a locker room at John Hopkins Middle School, a St. Petersburg shelter that welcomed pets and people with special needs, on Sunday. EVE EDELHEIT   |   Times
As evacuees showed up at shelters with their pets, local officials learned a lesson about the importance of planning for pets as part of hurricane preparation. Here Samantha Belk says goodbye to her maltese, Gardolf, until after the hurricane in a locker room at John Hopkins Middle School, a St. Petersburg shelter that welcomed pets and people with special needs, on Sunday. EVE EDELHEIT | Times
Published Sep. 17, 2017

Now that Hurricane Irma has staggered through Florida like a drunken tourist, it is telling that the early lessons from the storm's impact around Tampa Bay are less about life-and-death and more about quality of life.

We learned the value of having generators on stand-by. Of knowing the rules of the road at intersections without signals. Of knowing your neighbors. And of pre-brewing some good coffee for the morning after the storm.

It's a cycle built into natural disasters: Experience. Observe. Maybe learn. Maybe change.

"The big lesson learned from Katrina was you had to get out there immediately," interim Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan said.

So that's what 550 Tampa cops did, leaving their staging area at Raymond James Stadium about 3 a.m. Monday, as soon as winds allowed. Streetlights were out, so Dugan told officers to drive with their blue and red lights on to announce their presence. In the pitch dark, you could see them flashing a long way off.

The official process of studying what worked has barely begun and will take a long time, but local officials and residents say a few things are clear already.

"We need to prepare for mass traffic signal outage after the storm and buy equipment that keep the signals running on battery and or a ton of stop signs that will get people, hopefully, to stop at intersections as they should be doing anyway," Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said.

Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill agrees, but also wants a way to monitor and control traffic signals remotely. And he said there should be emergency lights that come on at intersections when everything else goes out.

"If somebody's approaching an intersection, you can't even see there is an intersection," he said. "You don't know to look carefully because it's too dark."

The other thing, Merrill said, "is we need to work on coordination with assisted living facilities . . . to make sure they have a good plan to get people out.

"What we found was they kind of waited until the last minute or didn't have a plan."

Like the storm itself, other take-aways from Irma touch on virtually every aspect of life.

Evacuees mean people — and their pets

When Pasco County opened its first set of shelters, only one was ready for evacuees with pets.

Big mistake, Tax Collector Mike Fasano said.

A political leader for three decades who's closely connected to Pasco's many retirees, Fasano knew that older residents would refuse to evacuate if that meant abandoning their dogs or cats.

"Their pets are their children," he said. "I kept hearing from people, 'Where are the pet-friendly shelters?' "

Sensing a growing crisis, Fasano said he texted County Administrator Dan Biles, who soon opened five more pet-friendly shelters. At the height of the storm, Fasano said more than 1,900 pets were in local shelters in Pasco.

Not enough generators

In Tampa, sewage overflowed from manholes after power went out to 80 of the city's 230 wastewater pumping stations. Two days later, 75 pumping stations were still off-line, forcing the city to rotate 20 portable generators among them.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn didn't blame Tampa Electric for the power going out, but said, "I don't like being in that position."

"I'm thinking, how many backup generators do we need to buy? How much more fuel do we need?" he said the morning after the storm.

Apps helped

Irma was Florida's first true technology hurricane.

It won't be the last.

Gov. Rick Scott used TV to promote the GasBuddy app, which tells users where stations are open and what they're charging. And his chief emergency expert, Bryan Koon, invited GasBuddy to set up shop at the state Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee.

Florida's big lesson for GasBuddy: The app needs more servers, more people and a lot more data.

"To maintain services, we're going to have to beef up our capability," GasBuddy's Patrick DeHaan said. "We also are learning what type of data the government is requesting during these times so that in a similar event we can have these types of reports ready to go instead of having our team develop this over the weekend."

In Pasco County, officials modified the MyPasco app so residents could use cellphones to report storm damage, with photos.

This helped the county build an online map showing closed roads and other problems in real time.

"Anybody can see where the damage happened in the county," said County Administrator Dan Biles.

The benefits don't end there. The app also creates a PDF file residents could use for insurance claims and FEMA applications. Intrigued, the state has expressed an interest in Pasco's app.

Curfews are not popular

Local political leaders and law enforcement officials imposed curfews in more than a dozen counties before and during Irma, and some citizens saw evidence of overkill.

Tallahassee lawyer and lobbyist Mark Delegal said local leaders overreacted when they imposed a curfew from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. for three nights.

"Totally nuts," Delegal posted on Facebook. "There is no reason that the taxpayers of Leon County need to be told by 'the government' that we need to stay in our houses for the next three nights. Government serves us, not the other way around. We are free people!!!!"

Public employees need to prepare, too

Local officials uniformly praised their first responders, utility workers and employees for rising to the storm's challenge.

"We get to see the best in our people when they're faced with the most challenging tasks," Pinellas schools superintendent Mike Grego said.

But Merrill said local officials need to think more about making sure government employees can secure their own households and families in advance, and to organize work in the storm's aftermath to prevent exhaustion.

"We work really hard in advance to make sure those people are lined up and ready to go, but an event like this shows that they need to be confident that their families are safe," he said. "That way, they can focus on protecting the community."

Building standards matter

Irma's attack on the Florida Keys left the chain of islands with no electricity, cell service or sewerage.

But state Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, noticed houses built with concrete, with metal roofs, were still standing. Those made of wood were damaged or destroyed.

"The Florida building code is a real eye-opener down here," Raschein said.

Another lesson is the unique geography of the Keys: 120 miles long and in many places a couple of miles wide, which makes it very difficult to pre-position the distribution of essential items such as food and water.

"We have to make sure we plan for that," Raschein said. Recalling the last major hurricane to hit the keys in 2005, she said: "It's been a while since Wilma."

Sleep matters

Gualtieri said the county needs to buy more cots because sleeping on the floor is miserable, even when it is only for two hours of sleep.

In Tampa, Dugan said police used one school as a place where officers could get some rest, but they found that they couldn't turn off the lights. Officers trying to rest in the club level at Raymond James Stadium also had trouble sleeping with light streaming in through the windows.

On Facebook, Tina Tran of Houston offered a tip from volunteering after Hurricane Harvey: Put an eye mask and ear plugs in your go bag if you have to go to a shelter.

"They never turn off the lights," she said, "and people are up and walking around all the time."

Information matters

Communication with parents could have been better to explain what needed to be done before schools could reopen, said Pinellas County Commission Chairwoman Janet Long.

"At the end of the day, there will be a lot of lessons to be learned," she said. "These are the things we have to do for the next time. There will be a next time."

Jessica Seldin said she was glad she joined Zello, the app that lets cellphones act like walkie-talkies.

"My neighborhood channel has been of more value than almost anything else," she wrote on Facebook.

Since Hurricane Wilma in 2005, the public's reliance on mobile devices and cellphones has become nearly universal, to the point where millions of Floridians have disconnected land line phones. When a major hurricane destroys cellphone towers, communication is wiped out.

"We need satellite phones," Raschein said. "People have been scrounging to find land lines that work."

Relationships matter

One thing Jeff Johnson of St. Petersburg has learned as Florida director of AARP is that "one of the biggest indicators of how well you fare in a crisis is your social capital."

So Johnson was glad he took the time to get the cellphone numbers of his neighbors so everyone could check on one another. After the storm, he took to Facebook to ask what others were glad they did and what they wished they had done. People had a lot of ideas:

• Power up an iPad with headphones to distract and calm a younger child during the storm.

• Get family members to list ahead of time the five things they would most like to save. (Scrapbooks? That collection of Playbills?)

• Have multi-USB plug-ins to power multiple devices from only one outlet.

Lisa Schillinger of St. Petersburg spent the storm at her sister's home on high ground in Palm Harbor and returned home with two lessons. In an email, Schillinger said:

"I learned:

1) that if a Category 4 or 5 is coming this way, I am leaving the state.

And

2) that my 88-year-old mother can still kick my butt at crossword puzzles."

Times staff writers Charlie Frago and Colleen Wright contributed to this report.