A Planner's Close Encounter With Hurricane Irma

In response to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria earlier this fall, the APA Foundation launched a donation-matching campaign through the Community Assistance Fund to help millions of people in affected communities.

As planners, we know the road to recovery is long and progress will be incremental.

Thanks to all who have already donated to the fund for hurricane recovery efforts.

As you make your year-end tax-deductible contributions, please consider giving to the Community Assistance Fund. All donations will be matched dollar-for-dollar by APA through December 31, doubling your impact.

This is a first-person account of Hurricane Irma from the chair of the APA Foundation Board, Mary Kay Peck, FAICP, who lives in Clearwater, Florida.

The atmosphere at the APA Florida conference was charged. Everyone was keeping a close eye on Hurricane Irma. Any tidbit of information was shared and repeated.

We were, after all, meeting at a waterfront hotel in Daytona Beach, and Irma had us in her sights. Irma teeter-tottered between a Category 4 and 5 hurricane and was described as the worst Atlantic storm in more than a decade.

Floridians know hurricanes on a first name basis and speak of Charlie, Andrew, and Wilma. Irma was my first hurricane in eight years living in Florida, and the obvious tension Irma brought to the conference made my concern raise exponentially.

I was nervous. I wanted to be home, four hours away on the west coast of Florida.

Home is a house on the water on a barrier island in Clearwater. Our house was built in 1998, after the building codes were strengthened in response to the horrendous damage Andrew caused. We put in all new windows with triple panes that could withstand winds of 140 mph. Our house is built 11 feet over base flood elevation. My husband and I — both planners — knew when we bought our house that we were at risk.

As Irma intensified, it seemed that everyone at the conference wanted to be home. Session attendance was clearly going down. I felt obligated to stay for an ethics panel I was on, but decided to leave as soon as it was over.

My fellow panelists were from Tallahassee, Central Florida, and Miami. Just before our session started, Miami and Clearwater — on opposite coasts — were issued mandatory evacuation orders. At that time, Miami was in the most danger.

As the session ended, I wished safe travel to my friend from Miami. I thought that my friends from Tallahassee and Central Florida were safe from Irma. No one knew at that point how fickle Irma was and how she would change direction.

Irma impacted me as soon as I left the conference hotel, determined to fill up with gasoline before I drove across the state. I passed gas station after gas station that was closed. The pumps were hooded. My stomach began to knot.

I found a convenience store and was impacted again by Irma. I paid $7.35 for a roll of Tums. Price gouging!

Evacuation

Residents of barrier islands are issued passes to use during mandatory evacuation. There are two parts to mandatory evacuation. At the first stage, which is a “soft close,” all hotels are evacuated, and businesses are closed. Residents and business owners can leave and reenter the island by showing their pass at police barricades. During the soft close, we went to a county park and waited in line to fill sand bags. We placed them around our front door, our home’s Achilles heel as it isn’t hurricane-rated.

When Irma was within 24 hours of making landfall, stage two of the mandatory evacuation kicked in, which is called a “hard close.” At that time, residents can leave the restricted area but can’t return. Those who choose to ride out the hurricane are on their own. Emergency service providers won’t rescue anyone until the hurricane has passed and the all clear sign is given.

Predictions showed Irma making landfall near Clearwater and St. Petersburg. Storm surge was estimated to be as high as 10 feet, with up to 12 inches of rain.

We evacuated for one night and went to a nearby hotel on higher ground where friends were staying. We huddled around the television and watched nothing but weather. With relief, we saw that Irma was changing course.

From time to time, we went down to the ground floor of the hotel and peeked out the door. The wind was so strong and the rain was so intense that it was hard to keep the door open. The power at the hotel went out at 12:30 a.m. Although the hotel had a generator, it didn’t work. The darkness in our room made me tired and I actually slept through Irma.

By the time she arrived in Clearwater, Irma was only a Category 1 hurricane. Although Clearwater Harbor and Tampa Bay water levels dropped significantly, the water came back slowly, and the storm surge didn’t materialize.

The next morning, the barrier islands were closed until roads could be cleared. I drove around the mainland and surveyed the damage. Power lines and trees were down. Roads were full of debris. I was anxious to see my house, to see what had happened to it.

The road to the island was opened at 4 p.m. Around 3:45 p.m., I joined the line of cars waiting to go home. I saw no structural damage as I drove along the island, which was a great relief. When I turned the corner and saw our house was fine, I cried tears of relief. The worst damage was to a large palm, which was uprooted and leaning at a 45-degree angle. There was plenty of debris to be picked up and piled on the sidewalk.

I’m so very grateful that my region was spared the wrath of Irma — which makes me feel selfish when I think about the minor and cosmetic damage we had in comparison to the devastation in Houston, the Keys, Puerto Rico, and other Caribbean islands.

It took a month and a half for all the hurricane debris to be collected locally and power was restored within 10 days. Personally, our house sustained damage to the soffit, landscaping, and fence. The soffit was repaired quickly. Two months later, we are still waiting for the fence to be repaired and the landscaping to be replaced. These are, at worst, minor inconveniences. People in Texas, the Keys, and the Caribbean are still suffering mightily.

What I’m Thankful For

The immediate outpouring of support from APA members and staff has been so very gratifying. The APA Foundation has received more contributions, more quickly, than ever in its history. To all those who have donated to the Community Assistance Fund, thank you from the bottom of my heart. Your donation will make a difference.

One of the most touching donations was from a six-year old boy, the son of an APA staff person. He wanted to do something to help hurricane victims — something himself. He set up a lemonade stand and made $135, which his parents doubled. What an amazing and thoughtful boy!

The Foundation will honor your contribution by making a difference in the communities that have been most impacted. We will act quickly to help communities in need plan for sustainable recovery.

APA and its partners have the expertise to ensure that hurricane recovery is swift yet thoughtful and results in more resilient communities.

Top image: A tree felled by high winds from Hurricane Irma in Miami. Thinkstock photo.


About the Author

Mary Kay Peck, FAICP

Mary Kay Peck is principal at MKPeck Associates. She is an adjunct professor at Saint Petersburg College and chair of the APA Foundation Board.

December 15, 2017

By Mary Kay Peck, FAICP