Saturday, November 18, 2017
Public safety

Irma arrives in Hernando with less fury, but leaves plenty of reminders

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Since Hurricane Irma made its much-anticipated arrival in Hernando County late Sunday, it's been all about the numbers for Cecilia Patella, the county's emergency management director.

How many people were out of electricity. How many were having to boil their water. How high a coastal surge might reach. How many had lived in storm shelters. She and the officials who have staffed the emergency operations center in Brooksville for the last week had all the answers.

So how many hours of sleep did Patella get during that time?

She wasn't sure.

"Not many,'' she said.

Many Hernando residents could say the same as the once-Category-5 storm took aim on Florida's Nature Coast. Several days of anxiously watching spaghetti models snake up the TV screen raised anxiety. But the worst-case scenarios for the monster storm were largely blunted before it roared into Hernando County with Category 1 intensity.

While the storm — which dumped 6.58 inches of rain at Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport — may have been only a shadow of what some anticipated, it has been a huge disruption for Hernando County residents this week. With a mandatory evacuation of the county's coastline and mobile homes, more than 5,000 people piled into six county schools turned into shelters. On blankets and pillows, in lawn chairs and wheelchairs, they waited for Irma's arrival, listened to the wind while not knowing the details.

Shelter evacuees and those who traveled even farther found an altered world when they returned home. Roads were blocked by toppled trees and hanging power lines. Some mobile homes and houses were surrounded by lakes of water. Many homes were without electricity. And even the water coming from the faucets of nearly 36,000 residents was not safe to drink without boiling.

Residents of the city of Brooksville, as well as Weeki Wachee Woodlands, Royal Oaks and all county residents east of U.S. 41 except for Dogwood Estates and Cedar Lane, were put on notice to boil their water. Low water pressure due to power interruptions and broken water lines, including some crushed by falling trees, can contaminate water, forcing consumers to take the precaution of boiling water before using it for drinking and cooking.

The water problems also contributed to decisions to keep city and county government offices closed for a while, with Brooksville City Hall reopening Wednesday and the county government center planning to reopen Monday. Schools also will open Monday, giving crews a chance to prepare the former shelter locations for students.

At the emergency operations center, about 1,000 calls from residents were coming in every day. That compares to about 25 a day during non-hurricane times. From Sept. 5 to 12, call takers handled more than 6,700 queries — 266 hours of answering time. They answered questions about shelters, road closures and storm details. Plenty of calls came in specifically about the pet shelter. Before the wind started, the county's plan for one pet shelter turned into having to open three schools to allow pets.

Coastal Hernando, where evacuees fled from the potential of not only high winds, but also high storm surge, ended up getting less of a hit since the surge never materialized. Officials said the majority of the downed trees and structural damage to buildings was reported on the east side of the county, closer to the center of the storm, which passed just east of Brooksville.

But, as the week wore on, the looming threat was from water piling up in the rivers, including the Withlacoochee, where another group of Hernando residents scrambled to prepare for potential flooding, and county officials watched to see whether they might need to reopen shelters.

By midweek, the river was 2 feet above flood stage; it was expected to begin rising further Friday, reaching major flood stage Sunday.

Terry Price, 63, was sitting with his Shih Tzu on the porch of his son's home in Talisman Estates earlier in the week. It looked like an island surrounded by river water.

"The worst part,'' Price said, "is it's still coming.''

Yards in the community were becoming an extension of the river, and residents were working to save what they could.

Said Eileen Lempicki, 51: "As the waters rise, I just get more emotional. . . . Feel like I'm going to have to start all over again.''

By midweek, the efforts to restore power throughout the county were just getting started in earnest. Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative, the county's largest power supplier, reported that it could take more than a week for everyone to get their power back.

While trash collection resumed, collection of debris from the storm will not start until Monday. There will be two sweeps through the county to pick up the material over the next several weeks. The debris must be sorted into two piles: one for vegetative materials such as tree branches and another for construction debris.

Teams from the county were also just beginning the work of assessing damage in the county. Without damage reports from residents, the Federal Emergency Management Agency may not approve the county for federal assistance with the cost of the cleanup.

The county put out a notice asking residents to report their damage to (352) 754-4083 as soon as possible. By Wednesday, only 10 calls had been received, and Hernando had not made the list of counties being considered for FEMA's individual assistance program aid.

Staff writer Megan Reeves contributed to this report. Contact Barbara Behrendt at bbehrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

 
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