Hurricane Irma: A disruptive force

With Hurricane Irma threatening Florida last week, officials weren’t taking any chances on where or when the massive storm would make landfall.

The deadly storm was churning in the Atlantic, when Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency on Sept. 4, warning residents that Irma is a “a massive storm” that could prove devastating.

Hurricane Irma is deemed to be one of the strongest hurricanes to hit the Atlantic. It had sustained wind speeds of 185 mph. (Courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

“This storm is bigger, faster and stronger than Hurricane Andrew,” Scott said, during a news conference, referring to a Category 5 Hurricane, ripping through Miami in 1992. Andrew claimed 65 lives and caused an estimated $26.5 billion in damages.

“If you’re in an evacuation zone, you’ve got to get out,” Scott said, during one of several interviews he did on national television.

In addition to closing all state offices on Sept. 8, he also closed all state colleges, universities and public schools. He said he wanted to provide ample space for shelters.

Wiregrass Ranch High School in Wesley Chapel is one of several schools in Pasco County serving as a shelter.

It opened at 11 a.m. on Sept. 8 and people were already beginning to arrive.

Ninety-one-year-old Mac McKechnie, of Zephyrhills, and his wife, Rae, were among those planning to stay at the shelter.

These beds, set up at Wiregrass Ranch High, were awaiting special needs residents who needed to be evacuated for Hurricane Irma. (B.C. Manion)

McKechnie said they came to the shelter because they live in an area that floods. Plus, he added: “My wife is a nervous wreck.”

Robyn White, principal of the high school, said the shelter has a capacity of around 1,700.

“Right now, we don’t have rooms set up for that. We’re going to open us rooms as needed,” she said.

The areas are divided into a special needs area and areas for adults and families, White said.

The special needs areas will have oxygen and electricity for people who need it for their nebulizers, said Denise Fackender, of the Pasco County Health Department.

“We will be supplying oxygen, so that they don’t have to use up their small tanks,” Fackender said.

White said the shelter will stay open until officials tell her the event is over, which she expects might be for a few days.

Other local schools that were designated to serve as shelters were Sunlake High School, Wesley Chapel High, Centennial Middle, in Pasco County and Hammond Elementary in Hillsborough County.

Robyn White, principal at Wiregrass Ranch High School in Wesley Chapel, said the school could shelter as many as 1,700 people from Hurricane Irma’s effects, if that becomes necessary. (B.C. Manion)

The Laker/Lutz News, regularly published on Wednesdays, went to press on Sept. 8. The initial goal was to deliver the newspaper before Irma made landfall, but the plan changed when it became clear that it would not be possible to achieve that.

As the monster storm approached, it was obvious that residents were taking it seriously.

Gas and bottled water were in short supply, and parking lots were full at home improvement stores, as customers picked up plywood and other supplies to fortify their homes and businesses.

The threat of Hurricane Irma, whose path still remained uncertain at press deadline, caused government offices to close and scores of businesses and local organizations to postpone or cancel events.

The Pasco County Commission issued a local state of emergency on Sept. 6 for Pasco County, allowing the county administrator and assistant county administrator of public safety to waive everyday procedures as they feel necessary to ensure the health and safety of the community.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District closed all district-managed lands including these properties in the Laker/Lutz News coverage area: Conner Preserve, 22500 State Road 52, in Land O’ Lakes; Cypress Creek Preserve, 8720 Pump Station Road in Land O’ Lakes; the Green Swamp West, in Pasco County; Starkey Wilderness Preserve, Serenova Tract, 14900 State Road 52, in Land O’ Lakes.

A sandbag operation at the West Pasco Government Center in New Port Richey was shut down due to traffic issues. (Courtesy of Pasco County)

The Pasco County Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department closed all county parks on Sept. 9, until further notice, because of concerns about inclement weather and potential flooding. Camping ceased on Sept. 8 and no reservations will be accepted until further notice.

Pasco County bus service was still running on Sept. 8, but officials said passengers should expect delays. Bus service will be cancelled if winds exceed 39 mph.

All of Tampa’s YMCA locations were closed on Sept. 10 because of concerns for safety of the Y’s members and its staff.

Hillsborough County’s sandbag operations were halted temporarily when the county ran out of sand and bags due to the high demand. At one point, the county was distributing sandbags at an unprecedented clip of 10,000 per hour, county officials said.

As of Sept. 7, Hillsborough had distributed nearly 200,000 sandbags, estimated to be about seven times more than distributed in any previous storm event, officials said.

Evacuation zones were announced as Irma’s proximity grew closer, and as the track of the storm continued to shift.

The threat of Hurricane Irma also caused a number of events to be cancelled.

Pasco County Schools cancelled all of its sporting events and activities that were scheduled for Sept. 8 or over the weekend.

An event that the Tampa Bay Suicide Prevention Task Force and the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay planned for Sept. 9 will be rescheduled to a date not yet determined.

In announcing that Pasco County Schools would be closed, Superintendent Kurt Browning said he realized that many people may wonder why all of the district’s schools would be closed.

He explained the decision this way: “The EOC (Pasco County Emergency Operations Center) doesn’t want school buses full of school children on the roads, as evacuees from other parts of the state are arriving here. We expect thousands of south and east coast Floridians to seek shelter here, or to pass through on their way further North.

“We also use school buses to help evacuate special needs citizens to shelters.”

The Shops at Wiregrass in Wesley Chapel announced it would be close at the end of business on Sept. 8 and hoped to reopen at 3 p.m., Sept. 11, depending on the conditions.

Bishop Gregory L. Parkes of the Diocese of St. Petersburg announced that, for safety reasons, a dispensation of the obligation for attending Mass had been given. He also advised the faithful to check with their local parish regarding any potential cancellations of services.

Dangers remain, after a hurricane passes
While storm surge and high winds are the biggest threats that hurricanes pose, there are dangers that go on well after a hurricane has passed. Here are some pointers to help keep you safe, in the wake of possible impacts from Hurricane Irma.

Be careful

  • Do not drive into areas when you don’t know the depth of the water.
  • Do not touch power lines, anyone or anything in contact with lines.

This could include a fence or other object a line may fall onto. Always assume lines are
energized and stay away.

  • Don’t drive over downed power lines, and if a downed power line makes
    contact with any part of your vehicle, stay inside and tell others to stay away untilthe line is safely removed and power is turned off. Attempting to get out of the vehicle could result in serious injury or death by electrocution.
  • Never trim trees around power lines. Only qualified tree contractors should trim trees
    around power lines.
  • If you are using a generator, be sure it is outside, well away from doors, windows and vents. Generator exhaust is toxic. Carbon monoxide is deadly, can build up quickly and can linger. Do not use a generator inside a home, garage, crawl space, shed or similar area.
  • Don’t use a charcoal grill indoor, either. That, too, creates a potential for carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Limit contact with floodwater, which may have high levels of raw sewage, bacteria, viruses and contaminants.
  • If returning home after evacuating, be sure to keep an eye out for snakes and other animals that may have entered your home during the storm.

Watch what you eat and drink
If you need to boil your drinking water, be sure to bring it to a rolling boil for a full 1 minute, to kill major water-borne bacterial pathogens.

If your power has gone out, keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible. A refrigerator will keep food cold for about four hours if the door is kept closed. A full freezer will hold its temperature for about 48 hours (24 hours if it is half-full).

Use dry ice or block ice to keep a refrigerator as cold as possible during an extended power outage. Fifty pounds of dry ice should keep a fully stocked 18-cubic-foot freezer cold for two days.

Food safety after a flood

  • Do not eat any food that may have come into contact with floodwater. Discard food that’s not in a waterproof container if there is any chance that it came into contact with floodwater.
  • Inspect canned foods, and discard any food in damaged cans.
  • Check each food item separately. Throw out any food that has an unusual odor, color or texture, or that feels warm to the touch.
  • Check frozen food for ice crystals. Food that still contains ice crystals may be safely refrozen.

Cleaning up, making repairs

  • Remove mold because it can cause serious health problems. The key to mold control is moisture control. After the flood, remove standing water and dry indoor areas. Remove and discard anything that has been wet for more than 24 to 48 hours.
  • Be sure to use plastic sheeting to cover roof damage and/or broken windows, to keep water from entering your home or business.
  • Wear protective clothing and use proper equipment when cleaning up the mess the storm left behind. Before trimming trees, make sure there are no power lines nearby. Only qualified tree contractors should trim trees around power lines.

Making claims, avoiding scams

  • Contact your insurance agent to report any covered damage to your home, apartment or vehicle. Be sure to have detailed photographs, so you can submit them with your claims.
  • If you had to evacuate, save receipts for all dining, hotel, medical, hygiene and even entertainment. Some of these items may be eligible for reimbursement. Save the receipts from the time you leave your home until you return to stay there.
  • Watch out for scams and unlicensed contractors. Verify the contractor’s business license and insurance. Make sure quotes are in writing.
  • If you suspect price gouging, call the state’s Price Gouging Hotline (866)-9-NO-SCAM (66-7226).

Sources: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Tampa Electric Co., the State of Florida’s Attorney General’s Office, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Published September 13, 2017

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