Floridians started crawling out Thursday from Hurricane Ian, and in the coming hours, the scope of this disaster — especially in southwest Florida — will become numbingly clear. For millions in Tampa Bay, the marvel at our luck should match only the sympathy we show for our fellow Floridians to the south, who’ll need our attention and support in the tough days and weeks ahead.
As we pick up the fences, tree limbs and other pieces in Tampa Bay, it’s not too soon to consider what we got right and wrong. After all, the fate of Mother Nature is outside our control. So the question is: How did we prepare? Was the forecasting helpful? Did the authorities do their jobs? And what can we learn from having dodged another big one?
Local forecasting. The Weather Channel did its usual bang-up job of highlighting the hurricane’s threat to low-lying coastal Florida. Residents who historically focused mostly on wind speeds have come to recognize in recent years the deadly danger of storm surge. Critics accuse the media of overhyping these storms, and Ian’s change of course to the Fort Myers area instead of Tampa Bay (as with Charley in 2004) only further fuels some public skepticism.
But forecasting is still tricky business, and the bigger message is sinking in — that these storms are unpredictable and can carry wide fields of destruction. To that point, meteorologists in the Tampa Bay area did a terrific job of keeping up with Ian’s path and projecting the local impacts in real time. That’s a credit to experience and technology, but also a broadcaster’s ability to speak in plain English. Josh Linker and others are a reminder of how valuable the national affiliates and Bay News 9 are to the safety of this growing, metro area.
Public messaging. Mayors and other leaders face a difficult balance in emergencies; they must project the gravity of the moment without igniting hysteria. And Tampa Bay’s mayors delivered. Clearwater’s Frank Hibbard used several broadcast appearances to underscore his concern for longtime Floridians who have grown complacent. St. Petersburg’s Ken Welch used a morning interview on National Public Radio to highlight the staged evacuation effort. And Tampa’s Jane Castor used multiple appearances with her police and fire chiefs to project a sense of law and order (the threat of a city curfew didn’t hurt).
Residents stuck at home, glued to the TV or anxiously decamped across the state need to see their local leaders in command. The mayors effectively communicated how they were preparing, the need for evacuations, the shelters and other services available for those leaving home and the resources those hunkering down would require as and after the storm passed.
Counties’ importance. It takes a village, for sure, to prepare for and respond to hurricanes. President Joe Biden approved an emergency declaration authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster relief. Gov. Ron DeSantis mobilized a range of state assets, from shelter staff and search and rescue teams to meals, bottled water and equipment.
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But it’s been telling this week how often the state has deferred to local governments. Counties and cities are the ones doing the heavy work on the ground — managing evacuations, securing streets and key facilities, staffing shelters in school buildings and transporting those without any other means to safety. After years of the state fighting the counties over mask mandates and other locally driven choices, the hurricane has underscored how central local government is to daily life — and by extension, how essential it is that local governments be run by competent professionals. That’s worth remembering as mail ballots go out next week for a string of local contests in the November general election.
There will be more — and larger — lessons to learn, of course, as Florida emerges from this catastrophe, and begins the long journey of repairing lives and livelihoods, property and the infrastructure so critical for society to function. For now, it’s enough to channel the good fortune of Tampa Bay to help our southern neighbors, and to build on the experience that Lady Luck has offered to better prepare for the next one.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.