Two weekends ago, we packed up our most precious belongings, food, as many clothes as possible and headed to my mom’s house east of Little Road. Neither Carolyn nor I were at all sure that we would ever see our home of the last 26 years again. The forecast included the distinct possibility that a cat 4 storm would come up the west side of Florida, destroying essentially everything in New Port Richey. We hunkered down with mom.
We weren’t alone in heading for higher ground. Northbay Hospital was evacuated. This is the first time I can recall the hospital EVER being evacuated. City staff made arrangements so that they could work out of a hotel at the Suncoast Parkway. Even the West Pasco Emergency Operations Center was considered at risk, putting county emergency operations folks on edge.
The storm ultimately tracked up the middle of the state, placing New Port Richey on the weaker west side of the storm. Our home survived, although several large trees did not fare well.
I can not say enough good things about the city employees who worked through the storm and then worked to start returning our city to normal these last two weeks.
I believe there are several lessons we can learn from our brush with Irma:
We need to be better prepared for extended power outages. Duke Energy was overwhelmed by the extensive damage to their distribution grid. It took over a week to get power back to everyone.
As part of our budget process, we discussed updating the generators serving city buildings. That needs to be done.
We also need to take a hard look at solar installations. Traffic lights in particular are easy choices for solar and battery power. Some traffic control devices, such as the school zone lights at Richey Elementary, are already powered this way. Having to find a spare generator and chain it to a traffic box just to get traffic lights working is not something you want to have to think about when you are dealing with the aftermath of a storm.
Being able to run essential services out of buildings that aren’t dependent on the Duke power gird is important. Maria just plowed through Puerto Rico. They are looking at up to six MONTHS to get power back to everyone. Generators are nice, but we also need to look at longer term solutions that will continue to work when gasoline and diesel supplies are problematic. Fortunately, prices for solar arrays and batteries are in free fall, making these potentially much more affordable over the next few years.
We need to take a hard look at how our Internet and phone systems work during and after a storm. Phone and Internet service through both Spectrum and Frontier were spotty when the power was out. Additionally, Spectrum had issues with overhead wires being damaged. My store downtown got power back fairly early on, but our phones and Internet remained out for a couple more days. Cell phones and cellular Internet helped, but even there, signal strength was down, indicating that one or more cell towers were offline.
Over the course of the past couple of months, my company has been migrating some of our corporate clients to mail servers in a hardened data center out of state. The new servers have a number of cool features not available on the servers we’ve been using. Under appreciated before Irma was the fact that the servers are well outside of any hurricane disaster zone. The process of moving client email accounts to the new servers has now been accelerated.
We need to make sure that we have adequate emergency reserves on hand. That goes for the city, local businesses, and us as individuals.
The city was suddenly faced with large Irma related expenses that will have to be paid. A lot of this involves the overtime put in by city staff. The city has a “rainy day fund” and we need to make sure that it is adequately funded.
My company saw a drop in business as folks started preparing for Irma and that drop continued during the week after Irma. Let’s face it, getting your computer fixed is probably not at the top of your priority list when surviving a hurricane is on the table. I suspect a lot of other businesses saw a drop in sales during those two weeks as well. You can do your part by visiting our local merchants and restaurants.
As a family, we had to replace spoiled food and we will have to pay to have someone deal with some tree work that is beyond what I can safely do myself. One unanticipated expense that will pay for itself over time will be a pole mounted electric chain saw. I’ve already managed to make quick work of some downed tree limbs, gotten rid of one “widow maker” branch that had broken off a cedar, but was still sitting up in the air, propped up by the limbs of another tree.
We need to consider what the future holds. Harvey, Irma, and Maria hammered the United States as back to back major hurricanes. It would appear that warm waters in the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico fed these monsters. If the overwhelming majority of climate scientists are correct that things are going to get worse before they get better, then we need to start NOW to harden our homes, businesses, and infrastructure because the next time, we may not be quite so lucky.
As we enter October, the Atlantic hurricane season starts to wind down. October and November are months where the number of storms are less frequent. Just remember, the 2018 storm season will be with us before we know it and it is never too early to consider what we will do differently next year.
Rob Marlowe, Mayor