With the busy 2017 hurricane season drawing to a close today, state and local officials are taking stock of where they sit going into 2018 as well as looking back at what they have learned after numerous hits in the past two seasons.
Hurricane Hermine in 2016 was Florida’s first direct hit from a hurricane in more than a decade. But Irma, which made landfall Sept. 10 in Monroe and Collier counties and traveled up the state, was far more destructive.
That storm was the second to hit St. Johns County in 11 months after Matthew’s visit in October 2016.
The two hurricanes have now given emergency planners here some things to review and consider as they look to making future plans.
“Every storm is different,” Emergency Management Director Linda Stoughton told The Record on Wednesday.
Matthew, which passed the northeastern part of the state about 30 miles offshore, she said, was mainly a “coastal event” that caused severe flooding and some wind damage.
“With Irma we had impacts in all four quadrants of the county,” Stoughton said.
That storm, which was much larger and passed to the west of the county as it ran north up the state, brought not only the storm surge and wind like Matthew, but also heavy rainfall that caused flooding in the Flagler Estates and Hastings area as well as tornadoes.
Rain, wind, surge and tornadoes are the four main things that can cause damage in a hurricane, according to Stoughton.
“And Irma came with all of it,” she said.
That will provide plenty for officials to study in the months and years to come, but the newest member of Stoughton’s team said he has absorbed plenty already.
“It definitely was a crash course,” Tim Connor said Tuesday.
Connor, a lifelong resident and veteran of an Army medical evacuation platoon, was hired on as an emergency preparedness planner at the Emergency Operations Center in April after a stint doing similar work here with the Department of Health.
He worked through Matthew with them, making sure health care facilities and special needs shelters were okay as well as monitoring environmental health issues post storm, but said his new role, particularly with tackling a hurricane five months in, has deepened his understanding of the broader challenges facing a county both before and after a storm.
“We are gathering information from every aspect of the community,” he added, saying that it can be months, and even years, both helping with recovery and studying what can be improved or done differently.
Politicians are still scrambling to determine how much of the next state budget will be dedicated to covering losses that may or may not be paid by the federal government.
The massive hit from Irma caused direct physical and emotional impacts in Florida, and ripples continue to come ashore as thousands of people flee Hurricane Maria’s devastation in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Members of the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness will meet Monday and discuss potential storm-related recommendations for the 2018 legislative session, which starts in January. Among the possibilities are legislation about housing, agriculture tax relief, hardening for emergency-operations centers and management of shelters.
“Obviously, there will be short-term things that need to be taken care of in the immediate, upcoming session,” committee Chairwoman Jeanette Nunez, R-Miami, said. “And then, as we saw back in (Hurricane) Andrew, or during the ‘04-‘05 season, legislatures will deal with this issue for years to come.”
As of Nov. 13, more than 830,000 property owners across the state had filed claims for $5.88 billion in insured losses from Irma, which was only one of four storms — Tropical Storm Emily, Irma, Hurricane Nate and Tropical Storm Philippe — that had a direct impact on the state during the six-month hurricane season.
Emily August made landfall in early on Anna Maria Island and quickly was downgraded to a tropical depression. Nate brushed the western Panhandle on Oct. 8 as the center of the storm came ashore near Biloxi, Mississippi. Philippe brought rain and couple of tornadoes to the southern part of the state as it made landfall Oct. 29 with 45 mph winds in Southwest Florida.
Mark Wool, the warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Tallahassee office, called 2017 the busiest for the Atlantic since 2005.
“We didn’t have any things working against tropical cyclone development like in recent years,” Wool said. “There was no El Nino in effect, which tends to suppress things. Didn’t see a lot of dust coming off Africa. We had a very warm ocean and the depth of the warm water was quite large. And all of those things tend to fuel development of a lot of storms.”
Emergency management officials each year stress preparing for hurricanes. But Wool said the flatness of Florida requires additional vigilance by coastal communities against flooding, as the state is also experiencing a period of rising sea levels.
“Parts of South Beach are flooding now without any storms. Blue skies, tidal flooding, the king tides,” Wool said. “We’ve seen times in the historic record where we’ve had large fluctuations in sea level, and we’re certainly on the upswing.”
Overall, there were 17 named storms this year. The most devastation came from Harvey’s Aug. 26 landfall in Texas, Irma’s double landfall and run-up of Florida starting Sept. 10, and Maria’s destruction of utilities and other infrastructure across Puerto Rico on Sept. 20.
While spinning in the Atlantic, Irma reached maximum sustained winds of 185 mph, a pace it held for a record 37 consecutive-hours. Nate also set a record in October for the fastest forward motion recorded for a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico.
“We certainly did establish some records,” Wool said. “Harvey’s rainfall established a new rainfall record for one system in the United States. I think some areas had 60 inches of rains, which was phenomenal.”
Irma also set new benchmarks for evacuees — an estimated 6.5 million people left their homes in advance of the storm — and power outages and restoration crews. Florida Power & Light, for example, reported 90 percent of its customers — about 10 million people — were without power on average 2.3 days.
Stoughton said those large numbers of evacuees, heading north through St. Johns County out of South Florida during the Irma evacuation, was another aspect of the storm that set it apart from Matthew.
But locally, she said, officials think fewer left their homes this year than they did in Matthew.
That was apparent partially by the number — about half, according to Stoughton — of residents who checked into the county-run emergency shelters this year as compared to in Matthew.
Stoughton said she and others will be studying why that was in the months to come.
“We think it is perceived threat,” she said, explaining that more may have been more worried about Matthew making a direct landfall — and she stressed that we have not felt a direct hit here in recent history — than they were about Irma which was predicted to make landfall further away.
“The other part we have to study is: Did people find other places to go?” she said.
While they will be looking into that and other parts of the reponse, she and Connor both said they thought residents learned a lot after Matthew and were pleased overall this year.
“I think we could tell from Matthew to Irma how much better prepared the community was,” Connor said.
This story contains reporting from Jim Turner of The News Service of Florida.