Even though Hurricane Irma was “downgraded” to a Category 1 storm by the time it ripped through the region last week, it has definitely made a financial impact in Hillsborough County.
Preston Cook, Hillsborough County’s director of emergency management, said Wednesday that while the storm wasn’t nearly as fierce as initially feared, Irma damaged 287 single family homes, 140 mobile homes and 14 businesses. That adds up to a total of $8.9 million in property damages to date.
The estimated costs for debris damage is now at $15 million, Cook says, a number that is also likely to grow.
At their meeting Wednesday, the board approved spending $1.25 million in costs associated with the storm: $750,000 on overtime for employees who worked throughout the storm and another $500,000 for disaster-related emergency equipment.
In assessing how they performed during the storm, Commissioner Sandy Murman said that communication needs to be improved between the county and the city of Tampa regarding evacuation orders.
Just hours before the storm was about to blast through the region on Sunday, Sept. 10, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Police Chief Brian Dugan declared a curfew in the city of Tampa, beginning at 6 p.m.
Hours later, Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill said that was not the case — that the power to declare a curfew resided with his office, and he wasn’t declaring any curfew.
Three days earlier, Buckhorn declared a state of emergency in the city, which he said gave him the power to declare a curfew. While he didn’t order anyone to immediately evacuate at that City Hall news conference, Buckhorn made it known explicitly that those living in evacuation area Zone A would be making a “big mistake’ by not evacuating.
“This ain’t Indiana. This is serious stuff. You will die if you’re not careful, if you don’t take the appropriate steps,” he ominously warned.
Hillsborough County officials declared a state of emergency for the county later that day. The next day they announced that they would begin voluntary evacuations starting at 8 a.m. Friday for residents in Zone A who were registered for special needs shelters. Mandatory evacuations for everyone else living in Zone A happened that Saturday when the majority of shelters opened up.
“There were quite a few concerns and confusion about as we move through the process in the EOC (Emergency Operations Center) about declarations of evacuations,” Murman said Wednesday at the board’s first meeting since Irma passed through. “People were confused,” said, adding that it was a “huge concern” over the 48 hours leading up to Irma’s arrival, and stated that confusion needed to be cleared up in preparation for the next major storm that will inevitably take aim at the Tampa Bay area.
Commissioners were lavish in praising Tampa Electric Company, even though some residents in the county did not receive power back until last weekend.
“If it was a competition with Duke Energy, you definitely won,” Murman proclaimed.
Commissioner Victor Crist also took a dig at Pinellas County’s government, saying that he was not happy in attempting to get information from officials there as he tried to aid his elderly father.
“It’s amazing that one bridge can separate two different markets as vastly different as it does,” he said.
Crist also said he was unhappy to learn that some of the public schools used as shelters during the storm were trashed, saying he’d like to know who was responsible.
“That type of behavior is completely unacceptable,” he said.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said Monday that the path of Hurricane Irma “could not have been more lethal” to the state’s farmers and the scope of damage to the state’s fruits and vegetables is unprecedented.
Commissioner Al Higginbotham said he is extremely concerned about the agriculture industry: “I’m seeing strawberry fields that don’t have plants in them.”
Some Hillsborough County rivers suffered from post-storm flooding. The Little Manatee river sustained less flooding than some of the other rivers, prompting Commissioner Pat Kemp to suggest that perhaps it was because more ELAPP lands were surrounding it. ELAPP is a land acquisition and protection program in the county.