Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Hurricane Irma Recovery Still Ongoing

Photos by Steve Stefanides | The City of Marco Island acquired a “high water vehicle” to rescue citizens. They have also acquired two “John Boats” that allow for shallow draft.

After Hurricane Wilma and prior to the devastating blow dealt to Southwest Florida by Hurricane Irma, major changes came about in how the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would deal with the aftermath of the devastation left in the path of a storm and preparations to prevent valuable and necessary governmental infrastructure.

After past storms, communities, just like the counties within the state and the states themselves, would assemble all the relative data regarding their losses and hand over those requests and supporting documentation to a representative of FEMA. All that paperwork would be taken away and a long and laborious process would take place.

It was a cumbersome practice, as FEMA Reps had no idea regarding the needs and priorities of those governmental bodies presenting that data to them.

Prior to Irma hitting, FEMA revamped the process as how to deal with devastation caused by natural disasters such as a hurricane and being better prepared prior to them.

FEMA now provides the Tier 1 Mitigation Monies to the state through the State Mitigation Office.

Because Collier County, City of Naples, Everglades City and Marco Island had suffered serious damage as result of the storm, the Tier 1 Funding would be earmarked for our area. It is through a Local Mitigation Strategy Committee that projects would come forward for review and prioritization and approval for those monies.

That committee is always reviewing the needs of the area should we be impacted by storms or any other disasters. It is an ongoing process to review hazards that impact people and property within Collier County. Its objective is to reduce vulnerability of a community’s infrastructure. Hardening of buildings, auxiliary electric generation capabilities, protection of vital water and wastewater sites and other vital infrastructure items are part of that preplanning and in the responses to disasters such as Irma.

Chris Byrne, the former Deputy Fire Chief for Marco Island, prior to his retirement was brought aboard as the point person for the Hurricane Recovery Efforts on the island. He would work with the city staff as they would review the projects they saw to be in the best interest of the city. Staff would then score and rank those projects and that report would be presented to the local County Mitigation Strategy Committee for their review, ranking and approval, before moving those recommendations up to the state level. Everything done would have to be approved and ranked prior to being forwarded to Tallahassee.

Those projects would then have to go through several additional reviews on the state level to evaluate engineering and environmental issues, amongst other areas.

“The process is a very fair one and no one segment of the county is weighted unfairly,” said Byrne. “We have a great system and it is being handled in the most professional manner,” he continued.

In addition to the Hazard Mitigation Program and that ongoing review, Byrne has been dealing with the “After Action Report” created by city staff and presented to the city council in January of 2018 and those areas identified in need of addressing.

The city has been able to acquire a military five-ton style vehicle for high water rescue. That vehicle came through state surplus and did not cost the city anything for its acquisition and will allow it for passage through high water events when standard vehicles would not be practical. The city has also undertaken a review of vehicle purchase needs to provide for more practical equipment which can handle high water events.

The city has also acquired several shallow draft or flat bottom aluminum boats by accessing state surplus equipment to allow for passage in flooded areas.

The need for the replacement of Fire Station 50 became a priority due to the shortcomings shown as a result of Hurricane Irma. Due to changes in standards under the FEMA codes, that now show the building is below flood level and is not safe for personnel to occupy in cases of another strong storm. The city and Byrne’s office are working to acquire grants and federal monies to allow for that replacement.

One of the areas that Byrne spoke highly of dealt with the inter-local agreement dealing with storm debris removal. “That proved to be an excellent program which was very well run, regardless of some of the criticisms which it received. Once up and moving forward the company and our partners at the county level did a great job,” said Byrne. “I’m not sure we would have had the necessary staff or resources to have overseen that segment of the storm recovery. We never had to lay out a dime and the job was completed with great success. It is a good example of how well we can work together in areas such as this,” said Byrne.

The city is also recovering monies which we paid out from our reserve and contingency funds to make repairs to items such as stormwater outfalls. Byrne reported that 54 of those outfalls were damaged due to storm surge and those have all been repaired. His responsibilities include working through the recovery of those monies expended to deal with those items which are not large capital expenditures but concern a considerable capital layout.

Monies spent on repairs to buildings and other infrastructure are also being recovered.

Another priority that Byrne is working towards is a request to provide a necessary provision for fuel storage on the island. “Although we were able to make some temporary provisions, the need for having fuel to run the city fleet, including police and fire vehicles was one of the glaring needs we need to address,” commented Byrne.

“Hurricane Irma showed us that we have a great team here on the island and within the community that is Collier County. We are still identifying things that we can improve upon and will continue to do that on all levels of our management structure, but it seems to be working well,” says Byrne.

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