Related story: Irma: What we learned
By Jane Smith
When Hurricane Irma swept through southern Palm Beach County last September, power poles snapped like twigs, wind-driven debris blocked streets and residents sat powerless for days amid temperatures in the 90s.
Irma’s damage cost area municipalities more than $26 million for unplanned overtime and for debris removal. Yet South County coastal residents felt relieved that the area avoided catastrophic hurricane winds.
In Florida, only an area of 15 miles surrounding Cudjoe Key felt catastrophic winds on Sept. 10, according to the National Hurricane Center’s May report on Irma.
Other areas in the Keys, such as Key West and Key Largo, felt Category 1 sustained winds between 74 and 95 mph.
“It’s a common misconception,” said John Cangialosi, lead author of the report. “Many residents hear Category 3 or 4 peak winds hit South Florida, but it was only within the core where the strongest winds were felt.”
During Irma, sustained winds along the Palm Beach County coastline were 2 or 3 mph below Category 1 strength, Cangialosi said. “But some 100- mph gusts were recorded along the coastline,” he said.
Coastal residents likely were anxious from watching Irma as it traveled west through the Atlantic Ocean for 13 days, hurricane researchers said. The storm held onto its Category 5 strength for 60 hours. Irma had seven landfalls, four at Category 5.
For this year’s hurricane season, with an expected peak between late August and mid-October, coastal municipalities are appealing to residents early to be prepared and to know their evacuation and flood zones.
Boca Raton gave its residents two more bulk and vegetation pickups as part of its Clean & Cut program in May, said Chrissy Gibson, city spokeswoman. The program was designed to help residents clean out garages and cut overgrown vegetation earlier, instead of waiting until a hurricane approaches.
“One of our biggest challenges last year was that once Irma was headed our way, people began cleaning out their garages, throwing out pool toys, breaking down swing sets and old fencing, and placing it all at the curb as the storm approached,” Gibson said.
Residents became angry when city haulers could not finish all of the pickups before the storm.
Delray Beach utilities workers struggled to move 30 portable generators among its 129 lift stations when 70 percent of the city lost power from Hurricane Irma. Fire Chief Neal de Jesus, interim city manager at the time, called the lift station problem the “Achilles’ heel of the storm.”
Delray Beach has since purchased 20 extra portable generators and the parts needed to make them function, de Jesus said. Commissioners approved the $20 million-plus purchase earlier this year.
In addition, the city now will deploy its emergency management center in the conference room of the Fairfield Inn. The building carries a Category 5 wind rating, de Jesus said. The hotel is allowing the city free use of its conference room and offering city staff rooms at the government rate.
Boynton Beach is increasing its hurricane public communications and marketing efforts, said Eleanor Krusell, city spokeswoman.
“We secured the website domain name of PrepareBoyntonBeach.com to simplify messaging,” she said. In addition, the city relies on hurricane expos, utility inserts and Facebook Live videos on hurricane preparedness and tree trimming with a sign-language interpreter, Krusell said.
Smaller communities alert residents by sending police door-to-door and via the town website, said Greg Dunham, Gulf Stream town manager.
Barrier island residents were supposed to evacuate before Irma approached, but some residents apparently stayed because they did not want to leave their pets.
When Lee County was under a mandatory evacuation order for Irma, the county allowed residents to bring pets into its shelters, county Emergency Manager Lee Mayfield said at the Governor’s Hurricane Conference in May.
Mayfield said the county’s 14 shelters, which were in schools, accepted pets. The shelters housed 35,000 people and 3,000 pets, which included dogs, cats and a goat.
Palm Beach County’s only pet-friendly shelter is in suburban Boynton Beach. The other shelters are in public schools, run by a combination of school and county employees. The schools allow only service animals.
“No one was turned away from the pet-friendly shelter,” said Mary Blakeney, senior program manager in the county’s emergency management division. “We are looking for additional pet-friendly shelters in county facilities, but none will be ready for the 2018 season.”