Hurricane season is here and it’s time to get ready

One of the best local sources for hurricane preparedness information is Pinellas County’s 2020 All Hazards Guide available online at www.pinellascounty.org/emergency/PDF/All_Hazard_Guide.pdf.

If tropical weather threatens Pinellas County this year, residents and businesses on the barrier islands and those living in mobile or manufactured homes would be first in any evacuation order.

That was just one of the messages shared during the first-ever Barrier Islands Virtual Preparedness Summit June 4 presented by Emergency management and beach representatives.

The summit focused on extra preparedness needs for the barrier islands, but much of the information was pertinent to all residents. The biggest difference for those on the barrier islands is the threat from storm surge, which is the reason those areas are first to be evacuated.

Joe Borries, Emergency Management operations manager, said when the order is given it is because storm surge is expected to get high enough to enter homes and businesses.

“It’s not safe to stay,” he said.

And the estimated storm surge doesn’t account for wave action. Borries said 4 feet of storm surge plus 4 feet of wave action would mean 8 feet of water inside homes and businesses.

“Run from water and hide from wind,” Borries said, which is a common phrase when talking about tropical weather.

He said all parts of the barrier islands were vulnerable to storm surge. And he cautioned those who live in a condominium that think they can “evacuate up” instead of out.

“That’s not a great idea,” he said.

Electrical equipment at ground level is vulnerable to salt water and when it gets wet, power losses follow, disabling elevators and other systems. Although some believe that Duke Energy cuts the power to the barrier islands during evacuations, Borries said that’s not true.

He reminded residents that heat rises, so it would be uncomfortable quick with no air conditioning. And winds are stronger up high with no trees to protect structures from straight line winds.

Plus, vehicles would be parked on the ground, so deciding to stay instead of evacuating could cost you your car, Borries said.

Fire departments move their equipment inland as does public works, so the equipment will be safe and ready to respond after a storm has passed.

Mike Burton, chief of Pinellas Suncoast Fire & Rescue District, said his department had a plan to follow if tropical weather occurred, and he asked the community to do the same.

“When an evacuation order is given is not the time to think of where you would go,” he said.

He said there was a finite window of time to have a chance to leave safely. When sustained winds get to 50 mph, first responders will be grounded, so no one will be coming if you need help, he said. Even before that, bridges will be closed.

Burton said 911 telecommunicators have the toughest job, as they take phone calls from desperate people and have to tell them help is not on the way.

“That’s gut wrenching,” he said, adding that “it’s a difficult decision that’s in conflict with what they to do serve and help.”

Depending on the damage, it could be many hours or days before help will come. Before any response can happen, bridges have to be inspected and debris and downed power lines have to be removed to clear the roads. And that’s before damage can be accessed on the barrier islands.

Burton said there is just no way to know how long it might be before help will be available on the barrier islands after a hurricane.

Make a plan. Know where you’ll go.

Many in Pinellas, including all those living in a mobile or manufactured home, will need to evacuate, depending on where you live and the strength of the storm. You can find out your evacuation zone by visiting www.pinellascounty.org/knowyourzone, looking at your county Utilities bill or property appraiser records. Those with a landline can call 727-453-3150.

If your plan calls for evacuating, it’s not necessary to go hundreds of miles. It’s better to go tens of miles and stay with family, friends in host homes or even check into a hotel, Borries said. Public shelters should be used as a last resort only.

Mecca Serfustini, Health and Human Services program lead with Emergency Management, said there were three types of shelters — special needs, general and pet-friendly. General and pet-friendly are essentially the same, except one accepts pets, she said. Special needs shelters provide different access and functional needs, she said.

Serfustini said general shelters don’t have generators, so evacuees are encouraged to bring battery-operated fans and flashlights. Space is limited and even more so this year, as social distancing is included in plans due to COVID-19. People from the same household can stay together, but apart from others.

She said there’s space for a twin-size air mattress, camping cot or pool lounge chair. It’s noisy, so ear plugs are recommended, and the lights are on all the time, so people might want to bring a sleep mask.

Speaking of masks, due to the pandemic, cloth face masks are required, so bring your own if possible, as well as hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes.

Water and food will be available; however, Serfustini said it’s “school food,” so if you have special dietary requirements, you should bring you own. And snacks won’t be provided, so bring those too.

Bring necessary medications, regardless of which shelter type you choose.

Evacuees going with their cats and/or dogs to a pet-friendly shelter should bring documentation that shows the animal has a county license. Bring them in a crate or carrier. Bring any necessary medications. Pets won’t get to sleep with their humans because of potential allergies of others in the shelter. Serfustini said to bring toys, a favorite blanket or a “shirt that smells like you” to provide comfort to your pets.

She also talked about staffing shortages. She said many of those who traditionally volunteer to help out in shelters are elderly and they don’t want to risk exposure to COVID-19. She advised anyone going to a special needs shelter to bring a family member or other caregiver to look after them.

People who have medical conditions, need transportation to get to a shelter or other special needs are urged to sign up now, so they can be included in the county’s preparedness plans. Visit www.pinellascounty.org/specialneeds or call Emergency Management at 727-464-3800.

Preparing for your boat

Joe Primosch, commander of U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, Flotilla 11-3 in Madeira Beach, offered lots of preparedness tips for the thousands of registered boat owners in the county.

Everything starts with the plan, he said, including understanding your insurance policy.

Decide what you will do, which could include pre-arranging boat hauling or going to protected water. If you plan to affix your boat to docks or pilings, make sure to orient into the wind. Use multiple anchors, chafe gear and new, larger lines.

Whatever you do don’t stay aboard, Primosch said.

If your boat is on a trailer, check the trailer, tires and axle condition in advance. Find a safe place, then lash the boat and trailer together and block the wheels. Secure it to a fixed object and tie to screw anchors.

If your boat is not on a trailer, put it in dry storage. Primosch said to never leave a boat on davits. If the boat is in wet storage, secure it in the marina berth, moor it in a safe area or haul it out.

For all boats, regardless of anything else, Primosch said remove all you can from it. Tape up the seams, windows and doors and prepare early. The safest place is on shore, tied down with screw in projectiles on all four corners.

If you plan to leave it in the water, use spring lines, 15-20 feet long, doubled up, stretched front to back to allow the boat to move up and down.

Stay informed

Tampa Bay Newspapers interviewed Emergency Management Director Cathie Perkins on the first day of hurricane season, June 1.

She said one of the most important things the public should do this year is to stay informed, as things will likely be changing between now and the end of the season on Nov. 30 due to COVID-19.

Perkins recommends Alert Pinellas as a good place to get emergency notifications by phone, text or email. Sign up at www.pinellascounty.org/alertpinellas. She also recommended the Ready Pinellas app, which can be downloaded for free onto a mobile device.

Ready Pinellas allows the public to look up their evacuation zone, create an emergency plan, provides a list of supplies for a hurricane kit, as well as a checklist of what should be done before a storm arrives. Ready Pinellas is available to download from the Apple App Store or Google Play.

In addition, Pinellas County government’s Facebook and Twitter accounts are good sources for updated information, and the website www.pinellascounty.org/emergency.

A NOAA Weather Alert Radio is another good tool to receive automatic alerts from the National Weather Service. And don’t forget to visit the National Hurricane Center at https://www.nhc.noaa.gov/.

Tampa Bay Newspapers and other local media sources also will have information on any hurricanes or tropical storms that threaten the area.

One of the best local sources is the county’s All Hazard Guide available online at www.pinellascounty.org/emergency/PDF/All_Hazard_Guide.pdf or visit www.pinellascounty.org/emergency.

Busy start to the season

The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season is off to busy start with three named storms already on the books as of June 2.

Tropical Storm Arthur formed May 16 off the east-central coast of Florida. Tropical Storm Bertha followed on May 27 forming near the coast of South Carolina and making landfall the same day.

Tropical Storm Cristobal came next on June 2 and set a record for being the third named storm ever to form before June 5. Pinellas felt its effects with National Weather Service issuing a flood watch, coastal flooding statement, high surf advisory and rip current statement, as well as small craft advisories that lasted through the weekend and into Monday.

NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center released its 2020 Atlantic hurricane season outlook May 21. Forecasters say it is most likely that the season will be above average and could possibly be very active.

Odds are 60% that the season will be above normal, 30% it will be near normal and 10% it will be below normal.

Forecasters gave a 70% chance that 13-19 named storms would form with winds of 39 mph or higher, six-10 hurricanes with winds of 74 mph or higher and three-six major hurricanes, which are Category 3 or above with winds of 111 mph or higher.

An average season includes 12 named storms with six strengthening into a hurricane and three becoming a major hurricane.

Hurricane season runs from June 1-Nov. 30.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.