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Charlotte County prepares for above average hurricane season

Hurricane predictions
Sabrina Salovitz
/
For the 7th consecutive year, the Atlantic hurricane season is expected to see above-average storm activity. Predictions from Colorado State University, StormGeo and the National Hurricane Center vary, but all estimations fall above the 30-year average.

Charlotte County Emergency Management Services is ready for what has been predicted to be another above-average hurricane season, according to Emergency Management Director Patrick Fuller.

“Part of living in Florida is being prepared,” Fuller said. “It's the price we pay for living in paradise, whether it's predicted to be an above average season, or just a run-of-the-mill season.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has created challenges for Charlotte's Emergency Services Department, particularly in forcing the county to reduce its shelter capacity for spacing reasons, but Fuller said they have not allowed the pandemic to get in the way of preparations.

“It's our job throughout every year, regardless of COVID,” he said. “We go into every hurricane season, and we have plans in place and we prepare every year as if we're going to be impacted, although hoping we won't be.”

Gina Gimaletterio has been a resident of Charlotte County since 1978. She’s experienced dozens of hurricane seasons, but like many who live in the area, Hurricane Charley in 2004 changed the way she prepares. Gimaletterio sheltered at home during Charley, and she’ll never forget the fear she felt, putting her young son in a hall closet and waiting out the Category 4 hurricane.

“It was very scary. There was a lot of damage,” she said. “I really don't ever want to go through that again so I'm much more prepared now.”

Gimaletterio is happy with changes that have come in the years since Charley, but she said she still doesn’t think there are enough shelters in the county.

“It was a problem with Charley,” she said. “There was no time for evacuation, no one knew it was coming here and we didn't have shelters like that.”

Charlotte County has four shelters: Kingsway Elementary School, Liberty Elementary School, Neil Armstrong Elementary School and Harold Avenue Regional Park Recreation Center. The capacity of these shelters is around 4,500 people, less than a quarter of the population of almost 200,000 Charlotte County residents.

“We’ve talked about trying to expand and we're still working on that strategy,” Charlotte County Commissioner Christopher Constance said. “It's difficult because we have to identify areas that are high enough that can support that, and so we're still working on it.”

According to Constance, the majority of the population in Charlotte County lives by the water in the western third of the county, the most low-lying area. That region is more likely to be flooded in a major storm, and so it isn’t a suitable location for a shelter.

Gimaletterio doesn’t remember any updates coming through during the hurricane, but she would later find out that a school just down the road from her was demolished in the storm. She was very glad to see the establishment of the Alert Charlotte Emergency Alert Program in the years since Hurricane Charley, providing residents with critical, timely information in a variety of situations.

“I think we've benefited from those terrible events of Charley in 2004,” Constance said. “We learned a lot, and now we have one of the best state-of-the-art emergency operation centers.”

Another major preparation that the Emergency Services Department has been handling relates to the over 600 special needs people who reside in Charlotte County. In partnership with the Department of Health, they have been working to verify residences and determine people’s eligibility for placement on the special needs registry.

Emergency Services has also been communicating with individuals, caretakers, and physicians to set up individualized plans and decide if the county will need to arrange for transit to a shelter.

“Talking about special needs situations, all those details have to be hashed out before the event occurs,” Constance said. “Patrick Fuller, our emergency manager has done an excellent job. I think our public safety officials are excellent here.”

It has been many years since Charlotte County saw a direct impact during hurricane season, but Fuller warns against complacency.

“No two storms are the same,” he said. “You have to pay attention to each and every storm. Don't let it stress you out, and to not let it stress you out, have a plan.”

For more information on Alert Charlotte, the Special Needs Program and much more check out Charlotte County Emergency Management’s website: https://www.charlottecountyfl.gov/departments/public-safety/emergency-management/alert-charlotte.stml

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