Hurricane Season Arrives-Are You Ready?
As a large area of thunderstorms churns in the southern Gulf of Mexico, rain bands sweep over Estero Island, reminding residents that hurricane season returns for another six-month stay.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Hurricane Center is closely monitoring the cluster of storms in the Gulf. NOAA has predicted an above average hurricane season with 13-20 named storms, with sustained winds of 39 mph or greater. NOAA also predicts as many as 11 hurricanes, three to six of which could reach major status, with winds in excess of 110 mph. Dr. William Gray and his team at Colorado State University (CSU) released a similar prediction in April of this year. The CSU team predicts 18 named storms, nine hurricanes and 4 of them major—Category 3, 4 or 5—hurricanes.
Local law enforcement, firefighters, and other first responders, such as the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) stand ready to assist should disaster strike. "We’re ready,” said Alan Vacks, CERT Leader for Fort Myers Beach. "[CERT] has 40-50 fully trained volunteers ready to go at a moment’s notice.”
His team consists mostly of full-time island residents who have been trained as first responders and work under the direction of the Fort Myers Beach Fire Control District. "We don’t self-deploy,” explains Vacks, a 25-year veteran of the Pittsburgh Fire Department, now retired. "We take our orders from the fire department and deploy as needed.” He explained that Captain Ron Martin of the Fort Myers Beach Fire Department serves as the CERT liaison and works closely with his team.
"Our island CERT team is the most active in this area and highly trained. That training includes disaster preparation, medical operations, damage assessment, light search and rescue, as well as CPR and disaster first aid,” added Vacks.
In addition to the dozens on his team, Vacks explained that there is a special strike team of 25 additional volunteers that can be activated when extra manpower is needed.
The message from Vacks is clear and simple, "be prepared and have a plan.” He warns that the island could be cut off from necessary resources and supplies following a major storm. He recommends, "Have enough supplies to last for three to four days.”
The entire incorporated area of the Town of Fort Myers Beach is located within the "Coastal High Hazard” area as defined by Florida Statute, according to the town’s Emergency Operations Plan. That means the island is below the elevation of the category 1 storm surge line as established by a computerized storm surge model. In layman’s terms, that means the island could be inundated with water by even a weak hurricane.
That makes flood protection a must for homeowners of Fort Myers Beach and the surrounding coastal areas, including those who live on inland waterways. Homeowners need to know if they have adequate insurance to cover their property from flood damage. 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. Current procedures call for a hanging placard to be displayed from the rearview mirror instead of the old windshield stickers. For information on re-entry to Fort Myers Beach after an evacuation order is lifted, 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, experts say. 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, though officials urge residents to make their own plans to evacuate to friends or families’ homes or a hotel.
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.
Every family should have emergency supplies on-hand, often referred to as a hurricane survival kit. Lee County Emergency Management recommends a minimum of three days of drinking water, one gallon per person per day, bleach, tools, first aid supplies, food, tarps, duct tape and a NOAA Weather Radio to keep abreast of current conditions and alerts. A full list of emergency supplies can be found on their website at leeeoc.com.
Pet owners are reminded to include their animals in their hurricane preparedness plans. "Absolutely take care of your pets,” reminded Vacks. "If you include a first aid kit in your family’s hurricane kit, also include first aid care for your pets. All of my group is ‘pet first aid certified’ through the Emergency Care and Safety Institute.” Since not all shelters or hotels will accept pets, he said it is important to think ahead and arrange for a pet-friendly shelter when making hurricane evacuation plans. 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 well in advance 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.
The Town of Fort Myers Beach works closely with Lee County and state government to coordinate emergency preparedness, response and recovery. When conditions warrant, the town’s Emergency Operations Trailer is moved off-island to higher ground, so that communications and operations can continue uninterrupted.
The town relies on local first responders, like the Fort Myers Beach Fire Control District and CERT volunteers, to be the first on the scene following an emergency. If other resources are required, the Town Manager, acting as Emergency Manager, can request assistance from the county who in turn can request assistance from the state.
Vacks has served on the Fort Myers Beach CERT for four years, three of those as team leader. He said the CERT trailer is kept at Fire Station 33 on the south end of Estero Island and includes a generator, four-wheel-drive Kawasaki Mule, Ham radio, tents, lighting and other necessary supplies. It can be moved to his home off-island if storm surge becomes a threat.
CERT members are equipped with a bag of supplies, tools and first aid kits to which they can add special tools and supplies of their own, explained Vacks. "This group is equipped and ready to go,” he said. "If you’re not a member of CERT, get to know somebody who is. Your next door neighbor might be the one who can save your life.”
Anyone interested in volunteering for CERT must undergo in-class or online training and should contact Alan Vacks at 239-826-9842 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or they can contact the Fort Myers Beach Fire Control District at 239-463-6163, extension 233.
"In fact, we’re conducting driver and equipment training at Station 33 this Saturday, so if anyone wants to come out and see firsthand the kind of services we perform, they are welcome,” added Vacks.
The Town of Fort Myers Beach stands ready for what looks to be an active hurricane season. With the help of seasoned professionals, like Vacks, and the team of first responders at Fort Myers Beach Fire Control District, they will act to keep the community safe and, if needed, recover from the effects of Mother Nature.
Free online resources are available to the public from local, state and federal governments, as well as volunteer organizations, to help prepare for and stay ahead of the storm, including www.leeeoc.com, www.floridadisaster.org, www.ready.gov and www.redcross.org. The town’s Emergency Operations Plan and other helpful resources are available at fortmyersbeachfl.gov under the ‘For Islanders’ tab, click on Emergency Preparedness/Operations.