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Officials: Don’t wait to get prepared

By CJ HADDAD - | Jun 2, 2021


No matter what the predictions are leading into hurricane season, Lee County officials prep year-round on plans and actions to take should a major storm impact Southwest Florida.

Although Lee County, for the most part, stayed out of harm’s way in a record 2020 season, Emergency Management officials know it can only take storm to make the year a significant one.

“Don’t wait to get prepared,” said Director of Lee County Public Safety – Emergency Management Sandra Tapfumaneyi. “It’s always great to start planning beforehand.”

With COVID-19 still present in the community, Tapfumaneyi said the division will continue to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines this year when it comes to opening shelters, as well as direction from the Florida Division of Emergency Management. Those guidelines could entail opening more shelters if a major weather event were to take place.

“We’re looking at making sure we have adequate space, and if that means we have to open more shelter in order to create that space, then that’s something we’re ready to do,” Tapfumaneyi said.

Have a plan

When it comes to creating a hurricane kit for you home and family, it’s never too early to begin to create your supply of basic needs.

Whenever an impending storm is announced, the public flocks to the grocery stores and empties shelves. Lines down the road to fill up the gas tank become a regular sight. Residents can avoid that commotion and chaos by being prepared.

“We encourage people to prepare all year round,” Tapfumaneyi said. “Creating your prep kit for a shelter in place plan can take a while to accumulate. A little bit here and there trying to put those together is what we recommend.

“As we saw during the pandemic, our supply chain was interrupted. Everybody is rushing out at one time. That’s what happens when we have a storm. The more that people space that apart, then we’re not affecting the supply chain and people are still prepared.”

Tapfumaneyi recommends three steps for prep:

1. Create an plan — Lee County has a checklist and evacuation plan sheet on their website to print and fill out.

2. Get your kit together — What items do you need to have on hand? Food and water for a three to five day period. Non-perishable food. Cash. Medication. Solar-powered items.

3. Stay informed — county social media and alert services

4. If people are forced to evacuate due to mandatory instruction, Tapfumaneyi said relying on shelters should be a last resort.

“A large part of our county includes evacuation zones, and our recommendation is that you find a friend or family member that lives outside of the evacuation zone so you don’t necessarily have to go hundreds of miles away — you can go across the county and still be safe,” Tapfumaneyi said. “We encourage people to have a plan in place that’s a much more comfortable option (other than a shelter) for them.”

Shelters will be open for as long as needed and will be stocked with personal protective equipment such as masks and hand sanitizer.

Tapfumaneyi said those who come to a shelter should bring a three-day supply of whatever medications or specific food items they need (there will be food at the shelter).

Individuals who bring pets (all shelters pet-friendly) need to bring a crate or leash, as well as food for the animal.

There are 21 shelters in the county. This year they have added the new Gateway High School in Fort Myers to their venues.

Tapfumaneyi said shelter openings and evacuations are based mostly on storm surge and storm surge risk.

Staying up to date

Spreading the word on hurricane season awareness and how to prep and stay up to do on the latest alerts is part of the county’s preparation.

Via the app “Lee Prepares,” residents can find their evacuation zone, what shelters will open in their area, guidelines on how to prep for a storm and more. There is also “AlertLee,” a mass notification system that sends out rapid emergency notifications via phone, text, email and social media (www.AlertLee.com).

The county has also released its annual “All Hazards Guide” that provides a plethora of emergency management information regarding hurricanes, flood zones, shelters, prep tips, and more (www.leegov.com/hurricane).

Interlocal connections

Tapfumaneyi said the county’s EOC works with all emergency management teams throughout the area to stay connected and informed on needs and status.

Representatives from local municipalities will arrive at the county EOC to be a bridge of information and to keep the message consistent throughout the region.

“It’s key,” Tapfumaneyi said. “We need that consistent message for our residents.”

Generator safety

Tragic stories often come out following a major storm with deaths related to improper use or storage of a generator.

When the power goes out with no solid timetable to reinstatement, many rely on the power of a generator to keep the lights on. Over and over again, preventable fatalities occur due to carbon monoxide poisoning or electrocution.

Tapfumaneyi recommends residents have an electrician come out an install a generator to make sure everything is properly working, to keep the generator 10 to 15 feet away from homes and make sure the device cools before refueling.

“We always see that after disasters,” Tapfumaneyi said. “People trying to keep it too close to their home or inside their garage.”

Earlier than usual?

Many top forecasters have touted the idea of pushing the official start of hurricane season to May 15 due to the increased activity prior to the June 1 start date. Tapfumaneyi said the county looks to outlets such as the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration and World Meteorological Association for guidance.

“The last six years we’ve seem storms form and become a threat prior to (the usual) timeframe,” Tapfumaneyi said.

It seems no decisions on changing the timeline will take place this year, but is something the county is keeping an eye on.

The season’s first named storm, Ana, formed early Saturday morning, taking shape over the Atlantic Ocean, east of Bermuda.

AccuWeather meteorologists do not expect Ana to develop into anything stronger. However, as it brushes Bermuda, breezy conditions with showers are likely to impact the island nation before it continues out into the Atlantic.

Official predictions

AccuWeather’s Global Weather Center and its team of tropical weather experts, led by veteran meteorologist Dan Kottlowski, project an above-active season that could result in 16-20 named storms, of which seven to 10 could become hurricanes. They also predict of those hurricanes, three to five could become major hurricanes (Category 3 or higher, maximum sustained winds of 111mph+).

“Current indications are this will be another above-normal season,” said Kottlowski in a release, in his 45th year of issuing forecasts for AccuWeather. “This can translate into high impacts on the United States.”

According to AccuWeather, an “average season” is considered to have 14 named storms, seven hurricanes and three major hurricanes. 2020 saw a record 30 named storms, 13 hurricanes and six major hurricanes.

For just the second time in the modern era, the Atlantic season was depleted of pre-determined names for the season. In mid-September, all 21 names from the English alphabet were used which resulted in the Greek alphabet being administered, the first time that’s happened since 2005.

For the first time since 2012, two named storms formed before the June 1 “official” start to the season, which was a forecast of things to come. Every single named storm other than Tropical Storm Dolly earned the record for the earliest forming storm of that letter in 2020. September proved to be the most active month, as 10 named storms formed over 30 days.

AccuWeather’s team predicts that in 2021, three to five storms will directly impact the mainland U.S., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands (annual average 3.5/year).

As for how intense this season could get, forecasters use a metric called Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE) do determine the ferocity of a particular tropical basin. Despite the records, 2020 wasn’t necessarily the most intense season, Kottlowski said. Last year produced an ACE value of 182, which was less than 2017’s total of 225 and pales in comparison to a 245 in 2005.

For 2021, AccuWeather forecasters expect a slightly above-normal season when it comes to intensity. An ACE value of 120-160 is predicted; the 30-year average for Atlantic seasons is 123.

“ACE doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story,” Kottlowski cautioned. “Just because a season has a lower ACE value than another, that doesn’t necessarily mean storms will be less damaging to the United States.”

Often used to paint a picture of the upcoming season is the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) — whether the waters in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean are warmer or cooler, typically referred to as El Niño (warmer) or La Niña (cooler).

Current forecasts show the existing La Niña pattern to shift to an ENSO-neutral phase by the late spring or early summer, meaning water temperatures in this zone of the Pacific will be closer to average.

Yes, the waters of the Pacific play a major role in the Atlantic hurricane season. Experts say during La Niña patterns, wind shear becomes less prevalent in the atmosphere over the Atlantic.

“Vertical wind shear is one of the biggest inhibitors of development for tropical systems,” Kottlowski said. “When there is less wind shear in the atmosphere, storms can develop with less obstruction. La Niña conditions were present during the height of 2020’s prolific season.”

Time will tell whether the pattern shifts back to a La Niña by the latter part of the hurricane season, according to Kottlowski.

“If that happens, that could certainly increase the chance that we could see more than 20 storms,” he said.

Kottlowski also noted troubling signs already emerging in the western Atlantic, as sea-surface temperatures (SSTs) are above normal in the northern and central Gulf of Mexico. Waters in much of the Caribbean and tropical Atlantic are also warmer than normal or around normal.

As of March 29, water temperatures off Key West were five degrees above normal.

The one exception is the western Gulf of Mexico, where water temperatures by the end of this month were cooler than normal due to the historic Arctic outbreak across the South in February.

“However, those water temperatures are expected to increase by the time the season begins,” Kottlowski said.

There could also be a greater change of a preseason storm to develop this year.

“Our biggest concern is the fact that water temperatures across the Atlantic are already warmer than normal over a larger part of the basin,” Kottlowski said, adding that it won’t take much to make those water temperatures go even higher through the summer and into the peak of the season.

Since 2010, seven Atlantic hurricane seasons have had at least one storm form before the June 1 start date. The last season without any preseason tropical development was 2014. The formation of Ana makes this yet another year with a named storm popping up on radar screens prior to the official start of season.

— Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj