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Third SanCap Citizens for a Resilient Future townhall offers two themes -- pivot, evacuation

Two key themes came out of the third SanCap Citizens for a Resilient Future townhall. The panel was filled with representatives from various emergency response teams from Sanibel and Captiva to discuss what went right and what should be learned from the disaster response after Hurricane Ian.

When it came to preparedness before the storm, the first theme centered on this word: pivot.

Key Theme #1: Pivot

Then you have to pivot. - Fire Chief Kevin Barbot, Sanibel Fire & Rescue District.
This entire response and recovery has been nothing but a a big pivot.  - Police Chief William Dalton, City of Sanibel.
Because when it does happen, we all have to pivot into the direction of figuring out what what we have to do. - Maria Espinoza, F.I.S.H. of SanCap.

The conversation was facilitated by City Manager Dana Souza and featured representatives from the police (Lieutenant Mike Sawicki, Lee County Deputy Sheriff and Police Chief William Dalton, City of Sanibel), the fire district (Fire Chief Kevin Barbot, Sanibel Fire & Rescue District), public works (Scott Krawczuk, Deputy Director of Department of Public Works, City of Sanibel), public safety (Benjamin Abes, public safety director, Lee County) , and a public service organization (Maria Espinoza, Executive Director of F.I.S.H. of SanCap.)

Each organization praised their emergency plans, along with the coordination and communications between the emergency response teams starting months before storm season hit. But once Hurricane Ian made landfall on September 28, each facility faced a new reality.

"I don't think anybody can plan for the magnitude and the force that came at us on the island," said Fire Chief Barbot.

Each representative provided insight on how their department planned ahead of the storm followed by the dramatic circumstances that caused a pivot.

Barbot said the decisions for Sanibel Fire and Rescue to evacuate and to halt emergency services were not taken lightly. "We're leaving our second home. Our firefighters consider the island home and leaving is a eerie feeling."

He said that, per Lee County policy, fire and rescue teams no longer respond to 911 calls when wind speeds reach 40 miles an hour.

"We have to make a risk versus benefit analysis of what is the cost of staying on island possibly jeopardizing our safety and also possibly damage to our equipment," he said. "So we decided to leave at 11 p.m. on Tuesday night. We evacuated with the mandatory evacuation and we retreated with our equipment back to Gateway to higher grounds and to a safe zone."

He said they monitored 75 dispatch calls while they were off island during the storm. "When we come back to the island, we'll prioritize those calls. We'll come back and we'll respond to those emergencies."

Barbot’s pivot came the next morning when he traveled on foot to the Sanibel Causeway because buckled roads prevented vehicles from getting there.

"I want you guys to throw a deck of cards on the table and envision the asphalt just on top of each other. And that's that's what we came to. So we we couldn't make it any further," he continued.

When he got to the Causeway, they noticed a 40 foot section of the bridge was missing.

"First off, your speechless. You're sitting there staring at this missing section of bridge and trying to figure out, 'OK, what's next? ' Emergency plans are great. Binders are great. We don't have a road!"

Once on island after commandeering boats from Port Sanibel Marina off Summerlin, the first responders had yet another challenge awaiting them. Trees and debris blocking the roads. This is where Scott Krawczuk with Sanibel Public Works came in.

"The afternoon after the storm, I was standing at the intersection of Tarpon Bay Road and West Gulf Drive and I honestly didn't know where I was, recalled Krawczuk.  "I mean, one area was blocked with vegetation.  The other direction was blocked with homes. And the road was covered in silt from the storm." 

Fortunately, Krawczuk was able to make a critical pivot. His team had decided to leave half of their equipment on island before they evacuated, which was fortunate because of the bridge outage.

The main test for public works he said, "is to clear pretty much one lane of access. We want to create access for police and fire emergency responders to get to the people in need."

Even after successfully getting first responders on the islands, Benjamin Abes, public safety director for Lee County, found himself with his own pivot challenge.

"We amassed a lot of resource requests, ice, food, water, heavy equipment. I mean, you name it, we had a resource request for it," he recalled. "Thursday night. I don't know if you all remember what happened that evening just north of us on I-75?  But the Interstate was closed because of flooding in North Port. So all of these assets and commodities that we had, and all these things that we had ordered throughout the day, and you know the cavalry is coming except they're not.  Because the interstates closed."

After the preparedness discussion, the team tackled the lessons learned from the storm. Enter the second key theme:

Key Theme #2: Evacuation

"As a community, we need to work on the evacuation thing. There was no reason for 1,000 people to stay on the island," said Police Chief William Dalton with the City of Sanibel. "You could replace everything in your home, but you can't replace human life. That's what I want to stress." 

City Manager Souza introduced the topic by showing a slide titled "Why Americans Don't Evacuate." It indicated that 43% of people don't leave for fear of damage to or looting or a home.

Lieutenant Mike Sawicki of the Lee county Sheriff’s department said looting is not a reason to stay.

"If you have a serious storm coming, there's no reason to stay here as far as damage to your home.  There's really nothing you can do to affect that outcome when the storm is here, everything you can do happens in your preparation," he said. "As far as the looting, I think that comes into that community partnership between public safety and the community and them feeling confident knowing that the response is going to be strong enough to protect their properties and their absence. "

Maria Espinoza with FISH of SanCap addressed how her organization works to address the other reasons people don't evacuate."

"Our main focus is to remove any barrier in someone’s way and that prevents them from evacuating.  For some, that can be a financial hardship and we will address those needs," she began. "For others, it could be mobility issues.  Simply, they could be unsure of what it means to  go into a shelter.  They're not aware that they can take their pet to a shelter, or they just don't have the technology available to make reservations.  So there's a ton of things that will stop someone from evacuating. But, when a storm is coming, that's what we want to make sure that everyone does."

Lieutenant Sawicki appealed to the a person’s self interest in developing an emergency plan that includes evacuation.

"Evacuating before the storm gives you control over your destiny.  You get to decide where you go.  You get to decide when you go.  You get to.  Decide what you bring and if you end up out here and end up having to get put on a helicopter," he warned. "If you don't have that plan in advance, you may end up in a school gym on a cot with dozens of other people. Take that time to be proactive to develop a plan, have it in place and don't wait for that evacuation order to come in to start developing a plan. That evacuation order is that last minute, 'Hey, get the heck out of there' thing you should be ready to hop in the car, turn the key and go."

Scott Krawczuk with public works said it most succinctly. "If you evacuate, it does speed up our recovery process, makes things safer."

Hurricane Season starts June 1. Please visit your county’s emergency management website to learn how to create an emergency plan, develop an emergency supply kit, and learn your evacuation zone. Or begin by downloading the National Weather Service Hurricane Brochure below.

The SanCap Citizens for a Resilient Future group is continuing community conversations through smaller working groups focused on three areas: 1) resilient building best practices; 2) natural environment and landscaping best practices; and 3) a communications group focused on information dissemination. Learn more here.
Watch the townhall on the Facebook page of the City of Sanibel.