Friday, September 22, 2017

The Terrible Legacy of Irma

My wife and I are among the Irma survivors -- survivors in the sense that we lived through the hurricane and remain Naples residents. We have our red badges of courage. As Stephen Sondheim wrote in 'Follies,' "We're still here."

Let's be clear. Irma was not some exhilarating experience to be called up later with a laugh at cocktail parties. Irma was terrible. Flat-out awful. Damage was not limited to property. The storm took a terrible toll on psyches, etched fear into our memories, fear that will not go away any time soon.

Few will forget the frantic entreaties of our elected officials as the storm approached: "Get out! Leave now! This is your last chance!" The problem was the shelters were full, the airports closed, the roads north clogged and little or no gasoline was available well into Georgia. For most there was no place to go! Such advice was idiocy.

People were terrified. What to do? One neighbor started to drive north, couldn't find fuel and turned back before she ran out of gas. Another neighbor couldn't get medicine. The pharmacies had all closed. Many, we included, were certain our houses would not withstand the 200-mile-per-hour winds that were forecast. And we'd be trapped there. Survival was a serious concern.

Bottled water had long been sold out, panels for covering windows long gone, flashlight batteries nowhere to be found. Shelters opened, filled up; other shelters opened, then quickly filled. People rushed to get a spot only to find they were too late. Hotels and motels were not options; frantic telephone calls around the state showed that everything was either closed or filled to capacity.

Some people took refuge with friends or neighbors. Most just hunkered down and prayed.

Few will ever forget the violence when the storm hit -- roaring, blinding, ripping out trees, tearing off roofs. Terrible flooding. Storm surge topping sand dunes. Roads rendered impassable.

The sad fact is our officials were simply not ready for a storm of Irma's magnitude. Local preparations were woefully inadequate. That includes water supplies, power backups, emergency help for the disabled. Local clinics had no generators. There was no master plan for sheltering and evacuation; no advance work with the private sector to ensure adequate fuel, water and other necessities; little apparent thought given to access for needed medicines. Drainage systems proved inadequate. There was no backup power for lifting stations that cleared toilet waste.

Lost was the fact that Collier County has 330,000 residents. Preparations benefitted perhaps 10% of them.

But look, it does no good to criticize our officials. Irma was unique, a 50-year storm (some say a 100-year storm). And there's no evidence that officials in other counties did any better. Certainly everyone's post-storm response was first rate. Debris was cleared, roads reopened, emergency repairs made. Local utilities labored around the clock to restore electricity. Communications from county commissioners and the Naples Daily News provided timely advice and helped keep people safe.

But the nightmares remain. Some friends are selling and getting out of Dodge. Others are armoring their homes, reinforcing their roofs and adding generators. That works for people who can afford it. Many who can't, homeless or with limited resources, are dependent on help from others. That help is coming in the form of donations, always generous where Naples is concerned. And some government money will eventually trickle in.

My wife and I are taking stock, wondering why anyone would live in a place so dependent on air conditioning. We'll do some armoring, hope we never need it, and install a big generator. And, like most, we'll stay here and get on with life.

But I suspect we'll never fully get over the horrors of Irma.

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