As counties in Florida and Texas and other states continue to recover from last year’s devastating hurricanes, scientists are predicting an active 2018 hurricane season with three to five “major hurricanes,” according to scientists at North Carolina State University and at Colorado State University, who base their predictions on weather patterns and sea surface temperatures.
The hurricane season runs from June 1 to Nov. 30 but historically peaks in late August and early September.
Monroe County, Fla., home to the Keys, suffered 17 fatalities and saw 4,000 homes destroyed Sept. 10 after Category 4 Hurricane Irma hit. The area lost power, water, sewer, cell and internet service.
Monroe County Commissioner George Neugent, mayor of the county at the time, stayed behind when the storm hit. “I just felt like I couldn’t leave the ship,” he said. “I have a friend who has a bunker of a house, it’s very elevated. We wanted as many people as we could to get out of the Keys. This storm had potential to be a killer.” The county began evacuations four days before the storm hit.
In an assessment of where they could do better, the county is taking a second look at:
The re-entry process: “It had been 12 years since our last evacuation,” Neugent said. “Four thousand homes were destroyed and people were trying to come back with nowhere to stay.” The county is going to re-issue reentry car decals that identify drivers as county residents and also plans to create a new “Group 1” category to allow some residents early entry if they work for a needed service such as a grocery store, restaurant or trash hauler to get spoiled food removed from grocery stores.
Communication capability: “That was the biggest challenge we had to deal with after the storm,” Neugent said — cell phone service, computers and even satellite phones were all out. “Amazingly there were a few land lines with the old phone service,” he said. “And when I say few, I think we had about three throughout the whole county.” The county is considering adding a 1,000-foot Category 5 hurricane-proof cell tower.
Debris removal: More than 2.3 million cubic yards of debris was collected after the hurricane. County crews also collected debris from private lands so it could be collected by debris contractors for FEMA reimbursement. “This was a perfect storm,” Neugent said. “Hurricane Harvey had just hit Texas and then Irma hit us and then Maria hit Puerto Rico. It was a trifecta of catastrophes that put tremendous demand on all of our resources.” Debris haulers were tied up in Houston and others were tied up elsewhere in Florida due to the hurricane’s path, he said. “The debris we could usually get out in a month went on for four months.”
What went right
The county is crediting its strong building codes for helping save many homes from Hurricane Irma’s devastating 130 mph and higher winds.
After the storm, the county created its own austerity program including a hiring freeze to be prepared for lost revenue caused by the storm.
The county had prepared ahead by coordinating statewide monthly conference calls starting in January 2017 to talk through challenges they might face if hit by a Category 4 storm.
The public information office created a keysrecovery.org website to keep residents apprised of recovery efforts.
The county helped coordinate the evacuation of people with special needs, brought in military aircraft to transport hospital patients to other medical facilities and arranged for extra transportation to take people to shelters on the mainland. It also worked to keep fuel trucks coming to the Keys and opened and stocked shelters for those who did not leave.
Harris County, Texas
Category 4 Hurricane Harvey made landfall Aug. 15 at Nueces County, Texas packing 130 mph winds, ultimately dumping more than 50 inches of rain in some parts of the region and causing an excess of $125 billion in damage across the state, according to the National Hurricane Center.
In all, 88 people lost their lives in Texas either directly or indirectly due to the storm, according to the Department of State Health Services.
Nearly 30 percent of Harris County was flooded and the county needed $44 million to pay for debris removal.
Eight months later, Harris County commissioners are in discussions about a potential $1 billion to $2 billion flood control bond referendum to match funds available through FEMA’s Hurricane Harvey Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.
“Members of Harris County Commissioners Court will meet May 1, at which point they will probably reveal a date and possibly an amount for a local flood control bond referendum,” said Joe Stinebaker, director of communications for Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.
Other items on the county’s checklist:
The county is spending $100,000 on a study to explore the idea of building massive underground tunnels to drain floodwaters from bayous. “It’s still a very, very long shot as to whether the project makes sense for Harris County,” Stinebaker said.
A new reservoir is also under discussion, at a cost of $500 million. “No new reservoir is possible without federal or state financing,” Stinebaker said.
“Harris County taxpayers cannot be expected to bear the full burden of a project that benefits residents of several counties and may not even be built in Harris County,” he said.
“The judge has said the logical step is for the state to free up about $500 million (the estimated cost) of its $10 billion Rainy Day Fund to build a third reservoir that would protect a significant number of its residents in southeast Texas.”
The county is also planning a campaign to put up two dozen billboards to encourage residents to purchase flood insurance.
The county’s Flood Control District estimated that more than 80 percent of the county’s 1.4 million buildings lacked flood insurance when Hurricane Harvey hit.
The Commissioners Court recently voted to seek $75,000 in federal grant funds for billboards.
The Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) has already started preliminary work in preparation for re-mapping the floodplains of Harris County.
The last county-wide re-mapping effort was completed in 2007 in response to Tropical Storm Allison. HCFCD works with FEMA as a local sponsor to perform much of the work to remap the floodplains, which are ultimately FEMA products.
Counties recovering from disasters are expected to receive some funding help soon from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, through its Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery Program. HUD awarded $28 billion April 10 for mitigation projects stemming from disasters that occurred between 2015–2017.
Florida counties may have to go to court to prove beaches are public
Some county officials in Florida are scrambling to create a “customary use” ordinance before July 1 that could preserve public access to privately-owned beach property and at the same time, possibly avoid losing some federal funding for disaster mitigation.
A new state law, HB 631, that goes into effect July 1 puts more of a burden on local governments to defend public access to sections of beaches adjoining private property. Some say the new law could also jeopardize funding from FEMA to help “shore up” beaches to better withstand hurricanes.
“It does pre-empt new ordinances,” said Susan Harbin Alford, deputy director of Public Policy at the Florida Association of Counties. “However, it creates a judicial process where you can petition a court, notifying all the property owners, presenting the evidence, and then you can get a judicial affirmation about customary use. In our view yes, it’s preempting our ability to pass an ordinance; however, it at least provides a pathway [to new ordinances].”
St. Johns and Volusia counties already have grandfathered ordinances barring the fencing off of beach property.
Walton County will take a hit when the new law is enacted July 1; its customary use ordinance, enacted in 2016, will be null and void thanks to the new state law.
The county was already sued by private property owners because of its customary use ordinance which allowed visitors to walk, sunbathe and picnic on private beaches. A federal judge ruled that while county officials had the authority to pass the ordinance, property owners also had the right to challenge the ordinance.
Now, with the new state law passed, counties will get one chance to defend a customary use ordinance in court. If a judge agrees, the ordinance can be passed and the beach can be made public.
Thomas Ruppert, coastal planning specialist with the Florida Sea Grant College Program, told WMNF-FM that “what the law says is, ‘no, local governments, you can no longer pass ordinances … only courts can make that decision.’”
In Flagler County, County Attorney Al Hadeed is drafting a new ordinance to preserve customary use and plans to hold hearings about it in May. Nassau, Indian River, Collier and Pinellas counties, among others, are considering ordinances similar to Flagler’s before July 1.