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Pinellas extends emergency status another week

CLEARWATER — As parts of Pinellas County continue waiting for electricity after Hurricane Irma, the County Commission voted unanimously Thursday to extend an emergency declaration until Sept. 21.

"We're just very thankful that we're all here," commission Chairwoman Janet Long said.

The commission issued the declaration last week as the first step to ordering the evacuation of residents from mobile homes and low-lying areas. It will expire next week.

Assistant County Administrator John Bennett said the extension will allow Pinellas to meet federal guidelines for reimbursement of some storm costs and to keep protections in place to prevent price-gouging. The order would also maintain continuity in the ongoing storm cleanup between the county and its cities.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri praised all county workers and the agencies that partnered with the county to prepare for the storm and handle the aftermath. He said it was the best work the county has done for residents in his 35 years of public service. But he cautioned there's room for improvement.

"I've never seen such a coordinated effort across the board," he said. "Everybody worked at the best of their abilities and to their highest levels."

Officials also offered an update on Pinellas' response and recovery:

County Administrator Mark Woodard told commissioners that coastal Pinellas fared well because the storm surge fell short of forecast levels of about 10 feet.

"We were very fortunate with respect to storm surge," he said. "That actual impact was in the 1- to 3-feet range."

Long asked how many of the 160,000 residents left Zone A — the low-lying areas and mobile homes — when the county issued the evacuation order on Sept. 8, a Friday. Officials could not provide precise numbers, but believe most of those residents left after Zone B was told to evacuate on Saturday.

"When we went to (Zone) B, it lit up the county," Bennett said. "It went better than expected."

Long also wanted to know if the county talked with Duke Energy to find out why Pinellas' electrical systems suffered so much damage even though the Tampa Bay region was spared the brunt of the storm.

Those discussions will occur in an "after-action plan" in the coming weeks and months, Bennett said. Duke and the county, Bennett said, will each have to find ways to "harden" critical infrastructures.

"Every storm has its own personality," Bennett said.

Gualtieri reported that nearly 200 intersections still lacked electricity for traffic signals.

"Everything is now under control," he said. "As power comes on, we'll continue to get better."

Commissioner Ken Welch said there will be plenty of time to assess what the county can do to better prepare for the next storm. He thanked staffers for keeping residents informed during Irma.

"The communication was exceptional," Welch said.

Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente

 
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