While ignoring a mandatory evacuation order is a misdemeanor, the local police will be too busy putting their own emergency plans into place to worry about arresting you.
At the meeting local and county emergency officials, along with local authorities from the bridge and the health clinic, held a seminar to discuss what could happen on Gasparilla Island during a tropical storm or hurricane, and how to prepare ahead of time so that you can evacuate safely.
Fire Chief C.W. Blosser opened the discussion with an explanation of the island’s hangtag system. In order to get onto the island after a storm, you must have a tag. They can only be obtained by homeowners and business owners at the fire station Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to noon and 1 to 4 p.m. Executive Assistant Nancy Coleman is the only person who can manage the database.
“The sooner you get the tag, the better,” said Blosser. “Nancy is the only one who knows how to run the system, and once we go into emergency mode, she will be too busy with other operations to process new applications.”
The tags are color-coded, blue for residential and bright orange for business.View More images >>
“Keep the tags together with your emergency kit where you know you can get to them,” Blosser said. “That way when it is time to leave, you don’t have to search for them.”
Blosser also offered residents free sandbags to protect their property. The bags are available at the fire station, and there is free sand on Wheeler Road.
He also stressed that the island fire station is not an evacuation shelter, and in fact, once winds reach a certain point or a high storm surge is predicted, the station itself will be evacuated and equipment removed.
Lee County Chief of Emergency Medical Services Scott Tuttle was one of the first EMTs stationed on the island when Lee County began to provide service.
His message was rather simple.
“If the fire department goes, so do the EMTs,” he said. “We will not be here to provide services if it comes to that.”
Lee County Emergency Planning Manager Gerald Campbell explained that, especially on Gasparilla Island, retreat to a mainland shelter should be Plan C or D.
“There are no Red Cross approved hurricane shelters in Charlotte County,” he said. “What is available is limited. I would suggest that as part of your planning, you find friends or family to stay with, or head inland to a hotel.If the fire department and EMS are leaving, it isn’t safe for anyone to stay, you should have a kit packed and ready to go beforehand, with food, water, medications, important papers and a small amount of cash. That way, when the evacuation order is given, you can just get in your vehicle and go. When the order is given is not the time to start planning.”
John Sielert, CEO of the Boca Grande Health Clinic, was up next.
“The clinic is not an emergency treatment facility,” he said. "Sometimes we have emergencies, and our response is to pick up the phone and call 911. In the event of severe weather, we will go to essential personnel or even the on-call doctor only, and if there is an evacuation, services will be halted until the order is lifted.”
The clinic is well-equipped to return to service, with a generator and three- day supply of fuel. But radiology and lab services are dependent on off island organizations, which may not be open after the storm.
Special needs patients should share their information with the local fire department.
“Even if there isn’t a severe storm or and evacuation, everyone should have a first aid kit on hand,” Sielert said. “After the storm we see a lot of minor injuries from the clearing and cleanup efforts. You should have your medications, as well. If you have a complex medical history, you can come to the clinic with a flash drive and have your records copied to it. That way you have them wherever you end up.”
Campbell explained that Lee County does have a system of special needs shelters, which are operated by the Health Department.
“There is an application online that you can download or fill out and email to us,” he said. “Up until Lee County is in the five-day cone (on a hurricane probability map), we will be processing them. At that point, we will begin contacting those on the list to arrange transportation and accommodation for the people who are already on the list. If you have any doubts, go ahead and fill out the paperwork. If we call and you don’t need help, that is fine. But if you don’t have anything on file and need help, you are on your own.”
Lee County Sheriff Lt. Jeff Corkhill explained the process that law enforcement community goes through.
“There are five phases that we go through as the storm progresses,” he said. “First, when the storm is approaching, we have a partial activation alert. We start moving in supplies to support the department for three days. All personnel are put on alert. Phase two is full activation as the storm comes closer. All certified law enforcement personnel are called in, and we go to a two-shift day, with two alternating shifts, helping with traffic direction and wherever we are needed.”
They also begin moving equipment out of the area, so that vehicles, boats and aircraft are safe and available for use once the storm has passed.
“Phase three comes into effect when winds reach 40 to 45 knots,” he continued. “That is when law enforcement goes into shelter themselves. At that point we will not be available for six to 10 hours. Once the storm has passed, we will begin an assessment of infrastructure with the EOC and fire department, still working alternating shifts. Finally, phase five is going back to normal shifts and recovery.”
Lee County Director of Public Safety Rob Farmer is in charge of four areas: Emergency Management and the EOC, EMS, 911 dispatch and radio systems and the infrastructure that supports them.
“If you don’t leave on your own, once everything is locked down we cannot come and help you,” he said. “If your house floods, we can’t come. If your house is on fire, we can’t come. If you have a heart attack in the middle of the storm, we cannot come. Your call will go on a list, and once the all clear is sounded, we will respond to the calls in the order of importance, not the order that they are received in.”
When the wind reaches 40 mph, the Gasparilla Island Bridge Authority will lock the bridge to boat traffic, according to Interim Executive Director Kathy Banson-Verrico.
“There is an actual, physical lock that we put on the bridge to keep it closed,” said Banson-Verrico. “We won’t prevent people from crossing the bridge itself, though. That is up to law enforcement. After a storm we have two-man teams that come out to inspect the bridges and the causeway, and as soon as we are sure that they are safe and have the okay from officials, we will start letting people back across.”
The counties try to wait until the latest practical moment to call for an evacuation, keeping in mind the logistics of moving so many people in such a short span of time. In the case of a mandatory evacuation, River Road in Sarasota and Charlotte counties is made into a one-way, heading toward Interstate 75. There are other such plans, but these lifesavers can only be effective if the people in the path of an oncoming storm cooperate and evacuate when the order comes out.
Otherwise, you can pick up the paperwork to list your next of kin at the fire department. It saves effort if you do it ahead of time, and not when the trucks are going around the island issuing warnings.
For more information on what to do in a tropical storm, hurricane or in the case of an evacuation, visit LeeEOC.com, or pick up a Lee County or Charlotte County All-Hazards Guide, which is full of information on what to do before, during and after a storm, at the Boca Grande Fire Department.
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