By Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice
As Hurricane Ian churned its way over western Cuba, the Tampa Bay area braced for our first direct hit by a major hurricane in a century. Meteorologists forecasted that the storm was heading our way. Our emergency planners prepared with somber, urgent focus. The governor held a news conference in our Emergency Operations Center. We felt prepared, but also extremely vulnerable.
As the storm continued toward Florida, our county administrator ordered the evacuation of all residents and visitors in Evacuation Zones A, B, C, plus mobile homes and 99 residential health care facilities. That constituted more than 400,000 people, a number that speaks to our susceptibility to storm surge and flooding as a low-lying peninsula on a peninsula.
As we now know, Ian veered south and made landfall near Fort Myers as a powerful Category 4 storm. It was the deadliest hurricane to strike Florida since 1935, claiming at least 137 lives. Damages are expected to exceed $67 billion. While buildings, roads and infrastructure can be rebuilt, there’s no way to quantify the trauma and hardship the storm is causing for our neighbors. Our heartfelt sympathies go out to them, and we’re helping where we can. For example, several members of our Emergency Management staff were deployed to assist in the recovery efforts. And so many of you are stepping up to donate funds and resources.
Pinellas County received what some have described as a glancing blow from Ian. Even that glancing blow cased structural damage, downed trees and power lines, and power outages. Overall, we were extremely fortunate. Watching the news accounts from southwest Florida, we can only image how bad it would have been here, and how bad it could still be next time.
I am grateful to our Pinellas County employees for putting their public service first and helping us prepare for and respond to the storm. We were better prepared for this storm than previous ones, and we’ll be even better prepared for the next one. You may not be aware of everything County employees are involved in behind the scenes. So let me name a few:
- Staffing shelters before and after the storm
- Transporting vulnerable residents to and from shelters
- Transporting and ensuring the safety of resident with special needs before and after the storm
- Staging alternate work sites to prepare for disaster recovery
- Clearing ditches/drainage areas to prevent flooding
- Working around the clock to coordinate the whole-of-government response at the Emergency Operations Center
- Ensuring we meet all procurement, budgetary and legal requirements to acquire the resources we need to get through the before and after impacts of the storm
I also want to thank you for making it easier for us to do our job. By preparing yourselves and assisting your neighbors, families and friends, you helped ensure our community was as ready as we could be.
My hope is that we will never become complacent about hurricanes. Every meteorologist will tell you there is no force field around Tampa Bay that makes us invincible to hurricanes. They are a risk we accept to live in such a wonderful place. But we have stay to prepared, monitor trusted weather sources, and act quickly if and when a storm threatens. As always, you can reach me at (727) 464-3363 or email@example.com.