Hurricane Irma was easy on the Holmes Beach government pocketbook.
But some hard lessons were learned about preparation, communication and sandbag demand.
Treasurer Lori Hill estimated Hurricane Irma will cost Holmes Beach $50,000 in preparation and cleanup costs. She cautioned the estimates are preliminary.
A rapid damage assessment from Kenneth Blaser, risk control consultant for Florida League of Cities, indicates Irma left a relatively light imprint on city-insured property. Holmes Beach is one of 273 cities inspected post-Irma by FLC.
“Our goal is to make sure they are up and running quickly,” said Jessica Sheets, FLC public information officer. “Fortunately for Homes Beach, they only suffered damages to poles and signs.”
FLC assessments are useful in determining if damage is covered by insurance and for claims to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“We provide them with the information they need to make the appropriate filing,” she said.
Mayor Bob Johnson emphasized the estimate involves city property and does not include private property damages, which will be much higher.
Hurricane Irma caused widespread power outages in Holmes Beach residences and businesses, including at city hall, after meandering along a wavering track that complicated evacuation decisions.
“This is the first time in a long time we faced anything like this and we were using old protocols,” said Johnson, who said he evacuated for the third time in 23 years after ordering a citywide mandatory evacuation just before noon Sept. 8. “We need to learn from it.”
Improving communication, always a challenge during a power-robbing storm, is lesson No. 1.
“The big lesson is the business of how do we communicate well with residents,” Johnson said.
Communication with county officials could improve, too.
Police Chief Bill Tokajer had concerns over the Manatee County decision to cut off water service to Anna Maria Island without discussing the move with island officials.
Tokajer said the unilateral decision caused concerns among residents who felt it was a power play to force them to evacuate.
“We need better conversations from county officials,” Tokajer said. “We weren’t aware that was taking place. Community leaders need a say in water being turned off. We had residents who were very upset.”
The mayor also was concerned that the decision to cut off the island’s water supply was “fait accompli” by the time he spoke with county officials.
“We had some discussion about the timing about when that was going to happen and the reasons for that timing,” Johnson said. “Given the way the storm was tracking in the pre-storm period, better safe than sorry. It was OK. Could it be better? Maybe, but I’m not getting bent out of shape about it.”
Amy Pilson, public affairs liaison with the Manatee County utility department, said the county notifies island officials of water cutoffs through discussions at the Emergency Operations Center in Bradenton, news releases, public announcements and its website.
Pilson said the water supply to the island will always be turned off if a storm threatens damage to the utility’s pipelines.
“It’s for protection of the infrastructure,” she said.
She said water was turned off at 10 p.m. Sept. 9, the day before Irma passed through Manatee County as a Category 2 hurricane, and restored Sept. 11.
Pilson agreed improved communication is necessary.
“Because the evacuation went from voluntary to mandatory, there was some confusion,” she said.
Usually, Pilson said, a reverse-911 call informs those people who have registered through the code red program on the county website. She said she was unsure whether Holmes Beach residents received such a call before Irma.
In another communications glitch, commission candidate Jim Kihm complained in an email to Johnson that outdated information remained on the city website after the storm.
“I would have thought the website would have been the most efficient way to communicate with most people in the city,” Kihm wrote Sept. 12.
“Why hasn’t the website been updated to reflect that residents are allowed back on the island and that meetings this week had been canceled?”
The mayor said improved communication protocols will be addressed and he expects a go-to place for emergency announcements.
“The city website could be such a place,” he said. “We need to make sure it’s properly hosted, which I think we do.”
Some residents also want to know why the city ran out of sandbags four days before the storm, forcing some people to use garbage bags, which are not recommended for storm protection. Public works supervisor James McGuinness did not return repeated calls for comment on the lack of sandbags.
Overall, however, city workers came in for praise post-Irma.
Tokajer lauded his 15-member police force for working 12-hour shifts and wielding chainsaws along with public works employees to help clear tree-clogged roads.
Lawlessness was limited to a burglary involving alcohol and antique silver, and an unauthorized pool party by young trespassers, he said. Also, a motorscooter was reported stolen the day after the evacuation was lifted.
Tokajer said re-entry went smoothly starting at 2:30 p.m. and concluding at 5 p.m. Sept. 11.
One city commissioner quickly went on record with her commendation.
“Thinking about how much the city employees did preparing for the storm and taking on so much responsibility for the residents and businesses, I just wanted to shout out, ‘thank you all so much,’” wrote Commissioner Carol Soustek in a Sept. 12 email to city clerk Stacey Johnston. “I am so thankful to work with such a great group of people and so proud of each and everyone of you.”
The mayor said overall he found the city’s preparation was excellent and response afterward was tremendous.
“We came back ahead of any other part of the county. The police department and public works did a super job so we could get people who live here back on the island again by Monday afternoon.”