Official issues challenge to beach leaders regarding hurricanes

Cathie Perkins, the Pinellas County director of emergency management, speaks during a meeting of the BIG-C on June 27 about the potential effects of powerful hurricanes striking Pinellas County.

ST. PETE BEACH — Every year between June 1 and Nov. 30, Florida is at risk of a hurricane. Hurricane season usually brings more than just high winds, heavy rain and potential storm surges; it also brings warnings. Plenty of warnings.

Longtime Florida residents have heard it all, over and over again: how we should have a plan, how we should stock up on essentials, how we should protect our property and ourselves.

When those attending the monthly meeting of the Barrier Islands Governmental Council on June 27 saw that Cathie Perkins, Pinellas County director of emergency management, was to be their guest speaker, many likely thought, “Here we go again.”

What they heard from Perkins was anything but what they had heard before.

She issued them a challenge to do more than just look after themselves in times of storms, but to take the lead in helping their entire community.

“I want to thank the barrier islands for being our first line of defense,” she said. “You know what your risk is. It is not ‘if’ a hurricane will strike, but ‘when.’”

Hearkening back to Hurricane Irma in 2017, a storm many recall as being one of the worst to hit the area in years, Perkins said that was nothing.

“Irma was a big power outage. It was not the real deal,” she said.

Perkins noted that the water did not come in, it went out. The big concern with a hurricane is the storm surge.

“A storm surge is a life-threatening situation,” she said. “Most of us get bowled over by a 1-foot wave. Well, imagine what it would be like if a 35-foot storm surge hit us. A surge is the biggest killer in hurricanes.”

The flooding caused by a storm surge causes deaths. Perkins said 22 percent of the people who die in hurricanes die of drowning.

She went on to issue a challenge to the mayors and community officials to work together to keep people safe when a hurricane approaches. She admitted it isn’t always easy.

“We know that 20% of the people will not leave their homes for safety and there is nothing we can do to change that,” she said. “We have to concentrate on the next 20% — those people on the fence — to get them to get to a safe place during a hurricane.”

She also noted that pets were an issue. Although many shelters take pets, a majority of pet owners just won’t leave their homes because of their pets.

“People are less likely to leave because of their pets than their spouses,” she said.

She urged people to get in touch with family or friends outside the hurricane zone so they can go there to ride it out. She said shelters aren’t comfortable.

To illustrate that, she stood with her arms outspread and said, “This is what 15 square feet looks like, and how much room you would have in a shelter during a storm.”

Then she dropped her arms by her side.

“This is 10 square feet, and it is what most shelters have to offer when they are full,” she said.

Perkins said the whole community must work together to weather a storm.

Employers should give their employees time to prepare their homes and families for an incoming storm. She said those employees are no good at work if they are worried about their families, and those same employees will be needed right after the storm to get the business up and running again and providing service to their community.

Belleair Beach Mayor Joseph Manzo said it is important for town and city officials get back onto the barrier islands after a storm has passed.

Perkins agreed and noted that the Sheriff’s office has a tag program which allows tag-holders to get back before the bridges are officially open.

To combat an overzealous deputy from holding officials back, St. Pete Beach Mayor Alan Johnson said he just calls his fire chief to come and get him.

Perkins said safety is the reason municipal officials should be allowed back quickly.

“They have to deal with downed power lines, debris and flooding,” she said. “Until those things are dealt with it would not be safe.”

The message Perkins came with was that people have to have a plan, and for barrier island residents, that means moving off the island and going somewhere safe.

She had an ominous message for those who will not leave during a storm.

“Our first responders will be leaving and taking their equipment with them,” she said. “They will not be coming back until it is safe to do so after the storm has passed.”

Until then, anyone who doesn’t leave will be on their own.