Two weeks later, Florida is still recovering from Hurricane Irma. But with federal, state and local officials still on the ground, and the experience fresh, now is a good time to start assessing what went right, what went wrong and how Florida can better prepare for the next one.
Nearly a third of the state, or 6.4 million people, were told to evacuate, about the population of Indiana. Officials did several things to bring about an orderly exodus — ordering the evacuations early, underscoring the need to flee and suspending tolls to move traffic more quickly. That helped to jolt many Floridians from a state of uncertainty into action. Gas supplies were stretched, but fuel was generally available near highway exits. Florida Highway Patrol troopers were visible. And many of those fleeing did their part by recognizing they didn't need to go a great distance, which helped ease congestion on the highways.
There were still hiccups. In Tampa, Mayor Bob Buckhorn ordered a Level A evacuation of low-lying areas of the city before an order was issued by Hillsborough County. While it's understandable the mayor was concerned, Hillsborough County government is designated as the lead agency in responding to a hurricane. By going off on his own, the mayor sent a mixed message to residents. In Pinellas County, a Level A evacuation order of the beaches and other low-lying areas was issued during a confusing Sept. 7 special County Commission meeting, but a Level B evacuation was not issued until two days later, when time to leave was growing short and many hotels already were full. Pinellas officials concluded it was better to escalate evacuations than overreact, but the communication and the timing could have been better. Many residents don't know their evacuation zones and the risks to lives and property from high winds and flooding. Too many also said they lacked an evacuation plan and had no "go kit" prepared with vital documents. The surprise that many residents expressed when Irma changed course showed that too many people still focus on a hurricane's projected track instead of the wider cone that covered the entire state.
More than 6 million of the state's 10 million residential and business customers lost power, including about 80 percent of Duke Energy's customers in Pinellas. The state could not have restored the grid in most places within a week had it not been for the thousands of utility workers dispatched here from across the country. Florida needs to build on these service agreements and return the favor when other states are hard hit by disasters. Duke Energy, TECO and Florida Power & Light need to expand their tree-cutting in advance of hurricane season. They should continue to review ways to diversify and harden power generation and distribution systems. And the state should review ways to encourage burying more power lines underground. The lack of power at traffic lights led to many dangerous situations; these intersections need to have emergency power, and officials need to be able to control these devices remotely. Utilities need to work with local agencies to ensure that critical public works, such as sewer systems, have backup power sources.
Internet, cellphone and cable systems also were vulnerable. At the height of the storm, nearly 8 million cable and Internet customers were out of service, and more than one-fourth of the state's cell sites were down. These are critical pieces of the public information system, and it's no small thing if millions of people cannot communicate in the nation's third-largest state. At a minimum, these providers need to give more notice of the state of their networks and the date they expect to restore service. This is an industry, after all, that more and more provides the basics for everyday life.
State and local governments kept the public informed from the start, and communications improved as private citizens and business assumed key roles in the recovery process. Gov. Rick Scott got a jump by pre-emptively declaring a state of emergency in all 67 counties, which speeded the deployment of emergency personnel and resources and helped to awaken Floridians to the coming danger. The governor stayed visible across the state as Irma neared, and local emergency operations officials held regular, televised updates to report on conditions, preparations, evacuations and other essentials. The briefings in Spanish served a large population. Buckhorn and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman made a point of being seen and heard. Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and others fired appropriate warning shots at scam artists, price gougers and unlicensed contractors.
Social media posts by government as well as by residents proved helpful in distributing information. State and local agencies have done a good job in the storm's aftermath of keeping residents informed as life crawls back to normal, on everything from school openings and trash collection to the process for filing insurance claims. It would help if more of this information could be found at a single portal.
Across a broader front, the cleanup seems well-organized; St. Petersburg started collecting storm debris last weekend, and Tampa is continuing to collect debris through mid October. The Florida House announced a new Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness, creating a venue to address a wide array of storm-related issues, from the storage of fuel, water and other supplies to the adequacy of Florida's building code. State lawmakers and the industry are already looking at new requirements for nursing homes to have better backup power, a response to the nine deaths in South Florida after a nursing home lost power to its air conditioning system. There will be much more to learn in the coming weeks as counties begin their "after-action" assessments of their response to Irma. Those reviews, by the various agencies involved in responding to Irma, need to be open to public input. This cannot be a process where those involved are responsible for giving themselves passing or failing grades. Officials also need to hear what the public thinks worked — and what didn't. There is no doubt Florida and the bay area will have an opportunity to put these lessons into practice.