With every storm, government officials learn more and tweak the process. Thanks to lessons learned in 2017, Gulfport fared better than some of its neighbors during Hurricane Ian.
Cathy Salustri

City officials in Gulfport started working the week before Hurricane Ian landed in Florida to get out in front of any possible emergency situations that were likely to develop, and that diligence kept the City’s infrastructure whole throughout the week of the storm and helped avoid problems other municipalities had.

City Manager Jim O’Reilly gave the City Council the first update about the looming storm Sept. 23, and the City issued a press release that same day with advice about how local residents should prepare.

“At present there are numerous uncertainties related to the storm,” O’Reilly told the councilmembers. “With that said, Tom [Nicholls, public works director] and I have begun staging necessary preliminary supplies and checking city infrastructure. As information becomes more defined, City staff will move to the first level of weather event preparedness and public communications that are presently being prepared for initial release once the storm establishes an identity and more definitive structure and path.”

Officials moved quickly in the days that followed.

The morning after O’Reilly’s initial update – Sept. 24 – Gulfport had sandbags available at the Gulfport Neighborhood Center on 49th Street South. The City opened its Information Call Center the morning of Sept. 25, where callers were promised that a live person would answer the phone and address any questions. The center operated 12 hours a day. Citizens were also directed to the City’s website for the most up-to-date information.

By Monday, with Ian bearing down on the southwest Florida coast, Gulfport Mayor Sam Henderson gave the first of what would be multiple updates on YouTube, with key information for residents regarding such things as shelter locations as well as some basic common-sense advice.

“We’ve been through this before, folks. Be calm. Be prepared,” he said. “When you’re stocking up, be generous. Look out for your neighbors. Try to have contact plans in place with those around you. Do your best. Please heed the warnings you are going to get from the County and the State. This is going to be a very significant event for us, regardless of the track the storm takes. Do what you know to do. Those of us who have been through it before, don’t be complacent. Please pay attention and take care of yourselves, Gulfport.”

As mandatory evacuations in certain zones began that evening and continued the morning of Sept. 27, City Hall and other municipal facilities in Gulfport prepared to close until the storm passed. Nicholls told The Gabber that his staff was working to ensure that loose garbage and yard waste did not pose problems. Regular trash pickup proceeded that day as usual, while residents were advised not to dispose of bulk waste until after the storm, which slammed into the coast less than 150 miles south of Pinellas County the afternoon of Sept. 28.

Amid the usual concerns about power outages related to the storm, Gulfport did not have issues with water, in part because its lift stations are outfitted with generators. On the other hand, in advance of the storm, the City of St. Pete Beach advised its residents who did not evacuate to avoid using water on their property, having shut down its sanitary sewer system in advance of the storm. A subsequent loss of power due to the storm resulted in a dozen St. Pete Beach lift stations being offline for a period of time afterward, meaning the City had to ask beach residents and business to not use water. Residents of Pasadena Golf and Country Club, where lift stations are operated by Pinellas County and not Gulfport, were also advised not to use water.

Gulfport Public Works crews were back on the job Sept. 29, ready for regular trash pickup but unable to proceed because Pinellas County Solid Waste was closed and would not reopen until the next day. So the crews turned their attention to clearing streets and removing brush, with trash pickup resuming the next day and into Saturday if necessary to catch up.

When contacted by the Gabber Sept. 30, O’Reilly confirmed that “all City operations and facilities will be open and operating in a normally scheduled manner” by Oct. 3.

And they were.

Gulfport Officials Use Past Experience to Prep for Storms

Just like long-time Tampa Bay residents have plenty of experience dealing with storms such as Ian, local government officials who have been on the job for years accumulate a wealth of knowledge that can be applied every time the weather forecast mandates it.

For example, Irma came through in 2017 and left large amounts of debris scattered around Gulfport. As crews cleaned up and disposed of it, Gulfport officials made plans for when they’d have to do it again in a future storm.

Gulfport City Manager Jim O’Reilly’s first storm experience as a professional goes back much farther than that, to Hurricane Elena, the first week of September in 1985. That storm shifted direction a few times and ultimately caused wind and storm surge damage in the area. Of course, there have been many storms since then.

“There’s accumulated knowledge from having dealt with numerous storms,” he told The Gabber in an Oct. 3 interview. “You learn something each time – what works, what doesn’t work. You learn what becomes a higher priority to implement. Experience just lends us to be open to what the public’s expectations are.”

Tom Nicholls, Gulfport’s public works director, was in his first stint in that position in another municipality when Charley barreled through the region in 2004. Like Ian, it was headed this way before turning east toward the Fort Myers area.

“The biggest thing to take from that one is that you’ve got to get out in front of it early, even though the storm may not come anywhere near you,” Nicholls said. “You’ve got to get the pieces in place. From my perspective, that means sandbags and boarding up buildings. You have to do all of that well in advance, even though there is a good chance it doesn’t come anywhere near you.”

O’Reilly noted that even now his staff is evaluating Gulfport’s response last week and looking at how it can be improved for next time. They aren’t the only ones.

“There are probably going to be changes in the processes that come from either the state or federal government that we will probably have to implement,” he said.

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