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Hurricane preparedness: ‘Don’t wait until you’re in the cone’

Peter Wahlberg

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Part 2 of 2.

On the last Thursday afternoon in May, the J.W. Cate Recreation Center in St. Petersburg played host to several hundred residents, who milled around a basketball court ringed by folding tables, filling complimentary canvas bags with enough paper measured in pounds rather than pieces – each one potentially holding the information that would save their lives. 

The City of St. Petersburg’s 2024 Hurricane Expo, hosted by the St. Petersburg Fire Department, included representatives of PSTA, the Red Cross, Florida Health and an alphabet soup of City agencies. Parks and Recreation workers shared details about the city’s new, tiered brush-clearing service (available at no charge to St. Petersburg residents). Officials from the stormwater department were available to discuss efforts to clear drains before and after storms.

Just in time for the hurricane preparedness sales tax holiday running June 1-14, the Fire Department had a stand depicting an example of a hurricane kit. It didn’t include water – a minimum of one gallon per person per day, half for drinking and half for hygiene and cooking, with enough for at least seven days – but did include non-perishable, easy-to-open foods, a hand-crank can opener, hand-powered radio and, since it’s Florida, plenty of sunscreen.

Above all else, the Hurricane Expo was the last great pre-season push to encourage residents to take the storm threat seriously. To punctuate that message, officials from every department and level up through Mayor Ken Welch were in attendance. 

St. Petersburg Hurricane Expo, May 30. Photo: Peter Wahlberg.

‘Blue sky thinking’

“There’s always things to learn,” said Amber Boulding, St. Pete’s Emergency Management Manager and a veteran of the last several storm seasons. “Every hurricane season, whether it’s our disaster or someone else’s disaster, we have these lessons learned. So it’s always a living plan.”

In one word, Boulding identified her biggest concern going into the season: “Information.” 

“It’s people understanding what they’re at risk for – and what they’re preparing for. The information is there. Not only now, in blue sky [when there’s no storm on the horizon], but as we get into the busy season. Even if we don’t take a direct hit, it doesn’t take a direct hit to impact us. How are you watching and getting your information? And understanding, not just if you’re in the cone, what your impacts are in relation to that cone?

“That’s what I don’t think residents aren’t taking enough advantage of is going out there and getting that information. It’s really hard to communicate with 265,000 residents, plus those visitors that we have.”

Part of the challenge is that storm preparation is specific, individual – and deeply personal. The best advice will be different for someone depending upon where they live; how close they are to water and what kind (Gulf or Bay? Creek or pond?); what kind of house they live in; what their property is like (Are there trees? What kind – palm, pine, or oak? How tall? How old? When was the last time they were trimmed?); whether they have dependents (Kids? Elderly parents? Are they mobile, or will they need assistance to walk?); how close they live to an evacuation route, and how many others will use that route; and, of course, whether they are among the 50% of Americans who don’t have $500 in savings, making an evacuation out of the area impossible. 

This is before taking into account the storm itself – how big it is, how powerful, and how close it comes to Tampa Bay.

Pinellas County is a peninsula on a peninsula, 38 miles long by only 15 miles wide – at its widest point. About 30% of the county is located in Evacuation Zone A, the lowest-lying part of the area. In a direct hit by a category 1 hurricane – the weakest of 5 – 270,000 people in Evacuation Zone A would be likely to lose their homes to flooding, according to one estimate. 2023’s Hurricane Idalia, a category 4, flooded 1,500 homes in St. Petersburg without getting much closer than 100 miles away.

This is what Boulding and others mean by the mantra to “make a plan,” especially during “blue skies,” when a storm is just a possibility. Her team members are disaster experts – they can’t be experts on every person and household. 

“We’re trying to get people to switch mindsets – don’t wait for ‘gray skies.’ Don’t wait until you’re in the cone,” she said. 

St. Petersburg City Councilmember Gina Driscoll concurred. “It’s more important than ever to create a plan, and when the storm comes to work the plan.”

Suggested hurricane kit ingredients. Photo: Peter Wahlberg.

‘What they could have saved was their lives

The combined, years-long efforts of Boulding and the others Catalyst spoke to are having an impact. Boulding reported that the City has seen a marked increase in requests for hurricane preparedness presentations by neighborhoods and condo associations. She has also seen a surge in resident applications for FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, which funds structural improvements to communities in danger of severe storms. In addition to the St. Petersburg Expo, a Pinellas County Expo on June 1 had approximately 750 attendees, including ABC Action News chief meteorologist Denis Phillips. 

For residents we spoke with, the message was received loud and clear. One South Side resident, who identified herself as Gail A., said she heard of the May 30 expo at a nonprofit and came to find out “what I should have learned years ago.” With a 95 year-old mother and a 4 year-old grandson, she cited those impacted by Hurricane Ian as the example she wanted to avoid. “They couldn’t have saved their things. What they could have saved was their lives.”

Allendale resident Krystal DeGroot agreed. DeGroot didn’t know the expo was happening before she arrived to pick her child up from a class – but she had already begun her hurricane preparations anyway. “We got all of our windows replaced,” she said. “We felt [the storms] have been increasing for awhile now, and then Ian hit.

“We’re not taking chances.”

Residential property owners and developers are taking notice, too. Robert Blackmon, a former St. Petersburg councilmember who owns rental properties throughout the city, reports significantly increasing the rate of replacement of older windows with new, impact windows, which are specifically designed to repel debris traveling at speed without breaking. Impact windows have a benefit, said Blackmon, during both “blue” and “gray” skies.

“You get huge energy efficiency and sound mitigation benefits,” said Blackmon. “Plus, there’s the benefit to crime prevention – it’s much more difficult to get in through an impact glass window.

“You just win across the board. Plus, now there’s no tax.”

If every resident takes the same approach, Tampa Bay will pass the same horrible test Miami faced in 1992 (with Hurricane Andrew) with flying colors. But officials are realistic about the challenge of communicating across a county of a million residents. For those who are unable, unwilling, or uninterested in preparing now, there was one message at the expo – over and over.

“Trust your local officials. When they tell you to go, go,” said Boylan, who admitted that he used to be skeptical of evacuating until he saw storm damage firsthand. “They will wait until the last minute to order you to go. It may only be once or twice in a lifetime when you have to evacuate, so make the most of it. Evacuate out of an evacuation zone – go tens of miles, not hundreds of miles.”

Driscoll: “Living in an area where I’m among the first to get an evacuation order, it can be a bit inconvenient to have to secure your house and move to higher ground for a couple of days… [but] You can replace your things but you can’t replace your loved ones.”

County Commissioner Kathleen Peters: “Heed the warning from the professionals… [Ian] was supposed to hit Tampa, so people in Fort Myers didn’t leave – and then all of a sudden when they had to, they couldn’t.”

Phillips: “Hide from the wind, run from the water. For those on the coast, last minute intensification is the worst nightmare. Folks who weren’t expecting it (think Ian for Ft Myers) don’t have time to evacuate.”

Leaving J.W. Cate for the stifling humidity and cloudless blue sky of late May, St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch was asked what message he had for the community. “Be prepared,” he said. With a smile, he added, “And listen to Amber.” 

The 2024 Pinellas County Hurricane Guide is available online and at the following locations:

  • Lealman Exchange, 5175 45th St. N., St. Petersburg. Open Monday – Friday 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.
  • The Centre, 1500 16th St. Palm Harbor. Open Monday-Thursday 8 a.m. – 8 p.m. Friday 8 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.
  • Pinellas County libraries
  • Municipal buildings
  • Pinellas County offices

Part 1 is available here.

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    John Sortore

    June 7, 2024at4:29 pm

    Mr. Blackmon is sadly misinformed about hurricane impact windows. They are not intended to not break when hit by flying debris, but rather quite the opposite. The impact glass is designed to break when struck but remain held in place in the window frame to prevent pressurization of the structure and possible lifting of the roof. At that point they will need to ber replaced. Unfortunately, Mr. Blackmon isn’t the only homeowner to be misled to think along these lines. Window salespeople can be a bit overzealous in their claims about impact windows. The universal rule is this; if a window is made from glass, it’s going to break – no matter who made it of how much it costs. After it’s broken it will need to be replaced and it’s not going to be cheap. The truth remains that the best first line of defense against flying hurricane debris is the hurricane shutter. Homeowners who spend tens of thousands of dollars on impact windows should protect their investment with the addition of shutters.

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