Debby's lesson: Get out as early as possible
CLEARWATER - Motorists crossing Old Tampa Bay into Hillsborough County have been treated to an unnerving drive in recent days. Storm-driven waves have been bursting over the bridges, drenching passing cars with saltwater, particularly on approaches and causeways. For a time Monday night, conditions deteriorated enough that both the Howard Frankland Bridge and Courtney Campbell Causeway were closed to traffic. They joined a list of road closures that included the Sunshine Skyway, which was reopened Wednesday after being shut down since Sunday afternoon. Emergency managers say area residents should take note – but not panic – that every major bridge spanning the bays except for the Gandy Bridge was shut down by a moderate tropical storm that didn't come close to hitting here. "Debby was not a Category 3 hurricane bearing down on us," Pinellas County emergency spokesman Tom Iovino said. "In the event we saw a storm of higher magnitude, we would have ordered evacuations on Saturday."Though the three bridges that were shut down at various times handle the majority of traffic to and from Pinellas County, the county has other north-south highways and roads - albeit passing through some low-lying, flood-prone areas. There also is an eastbound, land route on Tampa Road leading to Hillsborough County. Two types of evacuations can be ordered. The approach of a tropical storm or hurricane crossing Florida and exiting through Pinellas might not involve heavy storm surge, so emergency management officials could issue a "recommended evacuation." A mandatory evacuation would be issued when storm surge probability is high and loss of life could occur. Florida statute makes it illegal for someone to remain in a home under a mandatory evacuation. "If people have to evacuate, that doesn't mean they have to leave the county," Iovino pointed out. They could go to a friend or an evacuation shelter on higher elevation." "But if you are going to evacuate, you have to do it early and not wait until the wind is howling and water (is rising)." Debby forced the closure of The Sunshine Skyway Bridge at 4 p.m. Sunday; it was still closed Tuesday night. The bridge normally handles an average of about 52,000 vehicles a day. "It's an unprecedented occurrence, with the only other long-term closure occurring Sept. 14, 2001, during Tropical Storm Gabrielle," Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Steve Gaskins reported. That storm only closed the bridge for about eight hours. The Howard Frankland Bridge was closed at about 6:30 p.m. Monday because of high winds, surf and flooding. Southbound lanes reopened shortly after 8 p.m. and by 11 p.m. all lanes were open. The eastbound side of the Courtney Campbell Causeway was closed at 9:30 p.m. Monday because of debris on the road, Clearwater public safety officials said. The causeway reopened a few hours later. Given the uncertainty of storm effects, the area's numerous low-lying areas and the costs of elevating roadways – such as deep pilings – little can be done from a construction standpoint to improve on a strategy of evacuating before a storm hits. "The key is these issues (involving Debby) are happening during the storm," Florida Department of Transportation spokeswoman Kris Carson said. "If it were a big hurricane, we always tell people they need to evacuate before the storm hits, before the bridges are closed.''
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