Council of North County Neighborhoods President Don Ewing speaks to the residents gathered at the East Lake United Methodist Church to hear about Pinellas County’s post-disaster recovery plan July 15.
PALM HARBOR – Pinellas County officials invited to discuss post-disaster recovery in the wake of a devastating storm warned the members of the Council on North County Neighborhoods July 15 to prepare for circumstances that were hard to imagine, much less anticipate.
“We always know it’s not if, it’s when,” said Sally Bishop, director of emergency management for Pinellas County. “We’ve never experienced even a true Category 1 hurricane. We’ve gotten brushed by a lot of things, but we’ve never seen what the real event is going to be like. I hope it stays that way, but we have to prepare for it anyway.”
A Category 5 hurricane would devastate Pinellas County, identified as one of the top hurricane-vulnerable areas in the country, Bishop said. But the county has a plan, not just for short-term rescue and recovery efforts, but also for rebuilding the community in the long-term.
The Pinellas County Post-Disaster Redevelopment Plan is a 208-page document that details strategies for implementing the recovery across multiple jurisdictions, building a consensus for reducing vulnerability before and after a storm.
“It’s a big effort; it’s an ongoing project,” Bishop said. “It’s kind of like a community development plan on steroids.”
The Council on North County Neighborhoods hosts monthly meetings on different topics. The July 15 forum on disaster recovery was prompted by one of its newest directors, John Brush, who read the redevelopment plan and wanted to convey its message to his fellow residents.
Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala began the discussion by admitting that she initially didn’t understand what the county emergency management team did when there was no disaster, especially since Pinellas hasn’t dealt with a hurricane in such a long time. But following the hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005, she gained a respect for their level of preparation.
“I learned firsthand how very well prepared our emergency management staff was,” Latvala said. “You want them there and you want them trained when that emergency happens.”
Bishop said her job in the presentation was to explain how bad a hurricane could affect the county.
“Once you understand more about what this could possibly look like, how hard the impacts could possibly be, it gives you an opportunity now while the sun is shining to think about, ‘Wow what’s that really going to feel like if it happens? And what do we want to do about our community and bringing it back online again after the fact?’” she said.
She showed a video that tried to project the impact of a hurricane on Pinellas, using fake newscasts and potential photos of the devastation. The fake hurricane was based on the very real hurricane that hit Pinellas in 1921, the last time the county was in the path of a full-blown hurricane.
Most of the population of Pinellas County would have to evacuate.
“You’re talking about 581,000 people that live in an evacuation zone. We only have 935,000 people as a permanent population,” she said.
Models project that the storm surge from a Category 5 hurricane would flood Pinellas County to the point where it would be reduced to two separate islands of land. The water could surge 29 feet and could last 12 to 14 hours, Bishop said.
“It’s hard to imagine our communities that we live in every day – and some of us for 30, 40, 50 years – and that much devastation, she said.
Of 467,000 housing units in the county, 278,000 are vulnerable to the storm surge. About half of the utility infrastructure and essential services in the county are similarly vulnerable, from hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities to police and fire stations, schools, power and water treatment and disposable facilities.
“Life as we know it is not going to operate well when it goes under that much storm surge,” Bishop said. “It’s not just a matter of being inundated, some of it’s going to be totally destroyed depending on where it’s located.”
In the initial aftermath of the worse-case scenario storm, a Category 5 hurricane, the county won’t be able to use its bridges, relying first on the airport as its primary connection to the outside world. Residents can expect not to get back into the county for several days. Those that stayed should expect to have to fend for themselves – as far as food, medicine, supplies and shoring up their own homes against further damage – for at least seven days.
“Nor is it just that the power is going to go off for an hour or two or the water’s not going to work well and need to be boiled for a couple of hours or that the lift stations aren’t going to work and your sewage isn’t going to go anywhere,” Bishop said. “We’re not just talking about hours; we’re talking about days or possibly weeks.”
The county’s first goal is to clear debris from roadways to try to clear major routes to get to shelters, hospitals, power plants and critical facilities first.
Evacuating residents should be prepared to come back to a home and find nothing useful, she said. Preparation includes taking insurance, banking and life documents and records that you might need in the aftermath of the storm, as well as any keepsakes you couldn’t do without.
In the initial recovery, the county would waive building permits for houses that could be repaired quickly. Permits for those with 50 percent damage or more would be suspended, to ensure scant resources are spent where the fastest recovery can take place.
The county also would allow temporary housing, such as mobile homes, RVs and tents, while residents tried to fix their homes.