The Aughts—the nickname for the past decade—will be remembered by many in Northwest Florida as the decade of hurricanes. Over a 12-month period, four hurricanes threatened our community. Two, Ivan and Dennis, were direct hits. The other pair, Katrina and Rita, narrowly missed us.
Hurricane Ivan was the 10th most intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded. It holds the record for Atlantic storms for the most consecutive six-hour periods with an intensity at or above Category 4 strength. At its peak in the Gulf of Mexico, Ivan was the size of the state of Texas. Once it made landfall, the storm spawned 117 tornadoes across the eastern United States.
The storm hit Pensacola on Sept. 16, 2004, causing an estimated $13 billion in damage in the United States and killing 25, including 14 in Florida.
Sonya Daniel, Escambia County’s public information director, rode out the storm at the old Emergency Operations Center, which was in the basement of the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office.
“I slept about three hours that night,” said Daniel. “I remember waking up at 2 o’clock in the morning and hearing the wind howling through the building. It was very eerie.”
Gulf Breeze City Manager Buzz Eddy spent that night in Gulf Breeze City Hall dealing with emergency calls from residents who had decided to ride the storm out.
“We had a lot of people here at city hall [during Ivan] ready to provide services. That’s when our citizens need us the most—during disasters,” said Eddy.
Although Northwest Florida had seen hurricanes before, thousands had moved to the area since Hurricane Opal hit in 1995. They weren’t prepared for the destruction.
Virtually every major bridge in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties had to be closed, isolating much of the Southern parts of both counties. A quarter-mile section of the eastbound Interstate 10 bridge over Escambia Bay connecting Santa Rosa and Escambia counties was missing; the westbound section of I-10 was damaged but still standing. A roughly 30-foot section was missing from Bob Sikes Bridge, the bridge which connects Gulf Breeze to Pensacola Beach. The Navarre Beach Bridge—the other entry point to Santa Rosa Island besides Bob Sikes—suffered significant structural damage.
The Lillian Bridge on U.S. 98 at the Florida-Alabama state line, the U.S. 90 Bridge over Escambia River between Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, and the Perdido Key Bridge on State Road 292 were also closed temporarily.
Thousands of homes were destroyed. Locals whose homes had survived Opal and other hurricanes dating back to the 1940s saw their homes flooded and roofs blown off.
Residents were without running water, sewer and electricity for days. It was the loss of water that was one of the biggest shocks for Eddy, whose city owns the South Santa Rosa Utility System.
“I had told people that we would never lose water, but we did and had to scramble to get it back up,” said Eddy. “That just shows how severe Ivan was in comparison to other storms.”
The recovery was slow, painful and expensive. For some, it was too much to deal with, especially after watching Dennis, Katrina and Rita also hit the Gulf Coast, and they moved away. Others stayed to rebuild but vowed to be better prepared for the next storm.
MOVING PEOPLE FASTER
Since September 2004, local government offices and emergency response teams have heightened their standards for preparedness from emergency response drills to interactive websites for citizens. Evacuation notices are given much more emphasis.
“After Ivan, we became much more aware of the need to move people quickly,” said Daniel. “We have only a certain amount of time to evacuate people from Pensacola Beach, Perdido Key and our coastal areas. Time is of the essence.”
As Hurricane Ivan was approaching the panhandle, Escambia County and Gulf Breeze lost a major evacuation route when the Three-mile Bridge had to be closed.
“When that happened, it was too late to leave,” said Daniel. “When we tell people now that they have 15 hours, we are basing that on the best information we have available. People need to make a decision to stay or leave quickly.”
Decisions to evacuate Gulf Breeze are based on advice from the county and the state but enacted by the city. High priority areas are those that are closest to water.
“Waterfront properties are usually evacuated first, and then we work on other steps,” Buzz Eddy told the IN. “When a storm threatens an area, we know who has chosen not to evacuate, and we go and check on those people.”
The decision to stay and ride out a hurricane can have a greater impact than residents may understand, according to Eddy. If they stay, at the height of the storm emergency teams may not be able to respond to emergency calls, and if they choose to stay they are electing to put both themselves and response teams at risk.
Like Escambia County, the City of Gulf Breeze believes that communication is critical and great strides have been made in that area. City Manager Eddy believes that may be the biggest lesson learned from Ivan.
“We have better communication with our citizens,” said Eddy. “We’ve taken advantage of means to communicate with our residents through our website, email alerts, Facebook and an interface group that communicates through churches. I think our communication is a lot better than when Ivan hit.”
Gulf Power plays an integral part to storm recovery. Their team of engineers and technicians train throughout the year for storm preparedness. Occasionally, Gulf Power is called for out-of-state emergencies, like with the tornadoes that recently cut through Alabama.
“We had a plan before, but Ivan kind of changed everything. It was devastating, and it really made us take a look at everyone’s storm responsibilities and coordination and logistics,” says Jeff Rogers of Gulf Power’s Media Relations Office.
After a storm, Gulf Power begins by repairing and turning on the power plants. Once they are running, the team of technicians prioritizes areas to have their power restored, with hospitals and police stations at the top of the list and rural areas last.
Gulf Power’s customers should be aware that Gulf Power has a grid and can see who has power and who does not have power from their command center, so reporting a power outage five times a day not only does not expedite the process, but rather bogs it down by tying up their team with arbitrary calls. Downed power lines, however, should be reported immediately to prevent the risk of electrocution.
Gulf Power recommends switching the AC setting to ‘cool’ before a storm and shutting all windows and blinds. This will help keep the house at a tolerable temperature for 24 to 48 hours.
The utility company also stresses generator safety. An improperly wired generator may cause electrocution, so it is essential to know generator maintenance. Those who use generators should also be aware of the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning—In other words, they should keep the generator outside and be aware of symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Since Hurricane Ivan, more residents have invested in shutters, metal roofs and in hardening their homes. Rebuild Northwest Florida, a non-profit that was formed to help locals repair their roofs after the storm, has been a key player in helping homeowners.
With the help of more than 4,660 individual volunteers who contributed more than 251,357 hours of labor, Rebuild was able to return more than 1,700 families to safe and habitable living conditions.
Over the past four years, the organization has focused on its Residential Wind Mitigation Program that has completed more than 4,000 home mitigation projects, making it one of the most successful and productive programs of its kind. Rebuild has received grants that allow 75 percent of the cost to be paid by Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Rebuild is still accepting applications for the mitigation program. More information can be found on its website, rebuildnwf.org.
Both Energy Services of Pensacola and Gulf Breeze Natural Gas, the area’s two largest natural gas utilities, saw an increase in sales of natural gas generators after Hurricane Ivan. The generators are able to power a home until electricity is restored.
Eddy said that the sales were brisk in 2005 and 2006 but have tapered off since then. “But when you need power, a natural gas generator can deliver it quickly,” he said.
Jason Norton, owner of Baker Metal Works, has seen an increase in sales of his company’s metal roofs. “Our sales have been fairly good, and we’re gaining ground every year on the shingled roofs,” he told the IN.
The biggest advantages of the metal roofs are that they are certified to withstand 140 mile-per-hour winds, and they are warranted for 40 years. “Our panels are both lightweight and reflective,” said Norton, who bought the company in 2001. “Instead of absorbing heat, it will reflect it away, greatly reducing your energy bills.”
Baker Metal Works has the facility and equipment to customize roofs to fit any home. “We can cut the panels to fit any size house or business,” Norton added. “Out of all the types of roofing, metal roofing is the most qualified and tested to perform in the extremes of wind, fire and hail when properly installed.”
Procedures and guidelines for preparedness frequently change with circumstances, and that is exactly what happened after hurricanes Ivan, Dennis, Katrina and Rita.
Local governments are not the only ones who ought to prepare for hurricanes. It is paramount that families and businesses make arrangements and plans well in advance of a storm to prevent chaos when a hurricane arrives (see lists and websites for help).
The safest decision for hurricane preparedness is to evacuate if recommended by local and state authorities. For those who choose to evacuate out of town, it is important to become familiar with evacuation routes and supplies that will be needed. People who evacuate must also know to not return until told to by local authorities–police, fire department and emergency operation centers—not neighbors.
For those who choose to stay in the area, it is necessary to decide whether or not they are going to remain in their homes for the storm or go to a local shelter. Those who go to shelters should necessary items, and make sure that they have
The IN has put together these checklists, recommendations and directories to help readers form their own hurricane plans. Unfortunately with hurricanes, it’s not a question of if a hurricane will affect our community, it’s only a matter of when.