Experts reflect on intense 2017 hurricane season

Left to right: Curtis Somerhoff, assistant director of emergency management at Miami-Dade County; Gracia Szczech, Region Four administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency; Bryan Koon, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management; Martin Senterfitt, director of emergency management at Monroe County; Robert Molleda, National Weather Service meteorologist

On Dec. 1, Floridians awoke and breathed a collective sigh of relief as they realized they’d reached the end one of the most intense hurricane seasons on record.

That same day, hurricane experts and emergency managers convened at FIU to discuss the successes and challenges of the past six months, recognizing the work to prepare the public is never over.

“Hurricanes are, and will remain, a part of our lives,” President Mark B. Rosenberg told the crowd at the inaugural Hurricane Season Symposium. “From these experiences, we learned many important lessons both personally and as a community. We learned about our humanity, about our capacity to stretch and help each other, about what we must do going forward to help take care of the most vulnerable among us.”

Predicting the storm

The 2017 hurricane season brought with it 17 named storms, 10 of which grew to hurricane status. Six of those became major hurricanes, with two reaching the strongest intensity: Category 5. Three Category 4 storms made landfall in the United States. By comparison, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicted only two to four major hurricanes before the season began.

There is room to improve hurricane intensity prediction models, said National Weather Service meteorologist Robert Molleda. More accurate predictions made farther in advance of a storm’s landfall could help emergency managers and public officials make major decisions like whether or not to call for evacuation. Hurricane Harvey, for example, intensified from a tropical storm to a major hurricane in only 36 hours, leaving little time for Houston residents to secure their homes and head to safety.

Molleda also said a challenge this season was precisely predicting storm surge 24 to 48 hours in advance of the storms, when officials make the final call to evacuate. Storm surge — the ocean water pushed ashore by the force of a hurricane — presented the main threat to southwest Florida and the Florida Keys during Hurricane Irma. Five to 8 feet of water inundated Collier County and the lower and middle Keys; but experts feared as much as 15 feet of water would hit vulnerable areas like Marco Island, which impacted the official decisions made.

Evacuating efficiently

As Hurricane Irma approached the Florida Keys, which sit only 3 to 5 feet above sea level, Monroe County officials realized they would need to call for evacuation. This presented another challenge: There are no public shelters in the Keys.

So Monroe residents were instructed to head north to public shelters in Miami-Dade, including a shelter run by the Red Cross at FIU (which later moved to the Fuchs Pavilion at Tamiami Park). FIU also housed as many as 100 special-needs evacuees from Monroe in a specialized, clinic-style shelter in PG-6.

“FIU saved our lives,” said Monroe County Emergency Management Director Martin Senterfitt. “The hardest decision to make during a time of disaster is what to do with our people.”

Added Curtis Somerhoff, the assistant director for emergency management at Miami-Dade County: “The people who are vulnerable in our community day-to-day, their problems are tenfold in a storm. They have troubles on a sunny day. We have to do better for those people.”

A dwindling gasoline supply spurred by Hurricane Harvey caused major setbacks in Florida during Hurricane Irma. As officials called for evacuations across the state, people waited in hours-long lines to fill their tanks and, in many instances, travelled to multiple stations before they found one that actually had fuel.

Traffic rolled at a crawl on the northbound lanes of Florida’s Turnpike near the intersection of I-75 in Wildwood, Friday, Sept. 8, 2017. Motorists were evacuating for the anticipated arrival of Hurricane Irma. Photo credit: Stephen M. Dowell, AP

As Floridians crawled north through bumper-to-bumper traffic to evacuate by way of Georgia, state emergency managers teamed up with developers of the popular gas price tracking application GasBuddy. Together, they used GasBuddy data to track which cities along the evacuation route needed fuel deliveries. When they realized Gainesville gas stations were down to only 14 percent of their usual fuel supply and some evacuees would not be able to leave the state before their cars ran out of gas, state officials decided to open more public shelters south of the city.

It’s just one example of successful engagement between the public and private sectors to help the community in times of crisis, said Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Bryan Koon.

Preparing is essential

Koon also discussed the importance of helping people understand that ensuring their homes meet new building codes for hurricane resilience is an investment that pays off. As he travelled the state with Gov. Rick Scott following Hurricane Irma, he noticed, for instance, that homes with shingle and tile roofs incurred greater damage than those with metal or cement roofs.

“You pay the price at some point or another,” Koon said, noting that although renovating your home to meet the new standards may be expensive, it is significantly more expensive to repair damage caused by a storm to a home that was built to old standards.

Senterfitt agreed, pointing out that because he had put off making a $4,000 update to his Monroe County home to meet hurricane standards, his house incurred upwards of $300,000 in damages during Hurricane Irma.

Gracia Szczech, regional administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said overall “if there’s one good thing about hurricanes, it’s that they give us time to prepare.”

The time to prepare paid off: Though 65 percent of Floridians were without power immediately following Hurricane Irma and many homes incurred flooding and roof damage, FEMA reports fewer than 1,000 Florida homes were completely destroyed.

And she noted that “building more resilient communities is the best way” to prepare for next season.

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