Hurricane Season Begins
Today marks the official start of Hurricane Season, but don't tell that to Mother Nature. She already battered northern portions of the state with near hurricane force winds and dangerous surf as Tropical Storm Beryl made landfall near Jacksonville early Monday morning. It was the second named storm in the Atlantic Basin this month.
The 70-mph storm that toppled trees and caused coastal erosion is a startling reminder of what could be in store for the Sunshine State this year. Experts have predicted an average storm count for the 2012 season, but that is no reason for area residents to let down their guard.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts a 70-percent chance of 9 -15 named storms this season, but as there have already been two named storms, the latter number appears a more likely scenario. NOAA also predicts as many as eight hurricanes, three of which could reach major status, with winds in excess of 110 miles per hour. NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco noted that this August marks the 20th Anniversary of Hurricane Andrew, a reminder that it only takes one hurricane to devastate an entire area.
The message from officials at every level of government, including the Town of Fort Myers Beach, is "be prepared.” Public Works Director Cathie Lewis asks that all island residents "have a plan in place,” and recommends they go online where they can find "all kinds of assistance to develop a plan” if they don't already have one. "Be prepared, have a plan in place and hope we don't need it,” she added.
There are many online resources available from local, state and federal governments and volunteer organizations to help individuals and families prepare for hurricane season, including www.leeeoc.com, www.floridadisaster.org, www.ready.gov and www.redcross.org.
Residents of Fort Myers Beach and the surrounding coastal areas, including those who live on inland waterways, need to know if they have adequate protection from rising floodwaters during a storm which often become deadly and are always destructive. The National Flood Insurance Program--www.floodsmart.gov—offers protection for homes in the floodplain that are not covered under traditional homeowner's policies. Responsibility lies with the homeowner and now is a great time to review those documents and store them in a secure, dry place. Insurers also recommend that photo documentation of possessions be kept with policies to help speed up reimbursement in cases of loss.
In addition to checking for flood insurance coverage, island residents need to get their re-entry passes from Fort Myers Beach Town Hall before the next storm threatens. The new procedures call for a hanging placard to be displayed from the rearview mirror instead of the traditional windshield sticker. Those placards—two per property—will be assigned to the car owner's residence and not the owner's vehicle registration, as in the past. Lewis says the new procedures are restrictive in nature and modeled after other communities who have successfully implemented them. "We want to allow homeowners, renters, contractors and business owners to have access to their property immediately after it is deemed to be safe,” she said. Though restrictive, so that "those who need to be here and want to be here” can get back on island, she believes the new tags offer more flexibility. For information on re-entry to Fort Myers Beach after an evacuation or to obtain a hanging placard, call 239-765-0202.
Lee County has five evacuation zones, Fort Myers Beach lies in Zone A, the most critical area with a clearance time of more than 10 hours. Once the county orders mandatory evacuations for Zone A, beach residents need to comply, take all the necessary supplies with them and have a planned destination within a safe distance from home. There is rarely a need to travel hundreds of miles from home to find safe shelter. In fact, Lee County has more than 20 public shelter locations, including Germain Arena and local schools, that can be opened as needed to accommodate evacuees. Lewis said that although evacuation notices are no longer mandatory, except for special needs residents, it is important to get out of harm's way when one is issued. "I'm brave, but I'm not stupid,” she added.
The county now has a free, downloadable app for iPhones and Android devices, called LeeEvac. It allows users to see when and where evacuations are being ordered in real-time with push notifications. A GPS feature also allows users to pinpoint their location by address. "The ability to effectively inform people who may be required to evacuate is a critical part of protecting our community. The LeeEvac app uses familiar technology to provide personalized information to help people protect themselves and their loved ones,” said Lee County Emergency Management Planning Chief Gerald Campbell.
Pet owners should never forget to include their animals in their hurricane preparedness plans. Not all shelters or hotels will accept pets, so it is important to thoroughly think through evacuation plans to include pet friendly destinations. Web sites, such as www.pets-allowed-hotels.com, can be of great assistance. Pets need the same basic supplies as their owners, like food, shelter and water. They should also be up-to-date on vaccinations and have proper identification tags. For more information on pet safety during a storm, call the Humane Society of Lee County, 239-332-0364, or Lee County Animal Services, 239-432-2083.
Since many area residents are seniors and may require special assistance, the Florida Department of Health has helped to staff special needs shelters during times of crisis. Those requiring such assistance must register with the state. The Lee County Special Needs Program will also provide transportation to shelters for registered persons. For more information on this program or to obtain an application, contact Debbie Quimby at 239-533-3640.
Lewis said the town "has everything in place and ready to go. We are very proactive in monitoring the situation, we are always monitoring the weather.” The communications trailer parked at town hall will be moved ahead of the storm to the Lee County Emergency Operations Center. Lewis said the town works very closely with the county to ensure the public's safety and to be prepared for the worst.