Emergency management officials learned from Hurricane Irma and are implementing a variety of changes as hurricane season approaches.
Leslie Brozek, of south Fort Myers, said she’d planned to ride out the storm in her home in September 2017, until a last minute evacuation order.
“I had relatives up North calling and texting me, ‘What are your going to do?'” Brozek said. “‘You gotta leave, you gotta leave, you gotta leave.'”
Brozek said she considered evacuating and driving somewhere else, but was afraid of running out of gas. She decided to leave her home and went to seek shelter at Germain Arena, along with thousands of others, where she dealt with crowds.
There were 35,000 people in Lee County staying in public shelters as Hurricane Irma hit Southwest Florida. Lee Mayfield, of Lee County Emergency Management, shared how the experience led to significant changes.
“Part of of our business here in this building is to solve problems as they arrive,” Mayfield said. “One example is when we had those long lines at shelters … how do we get those lines moving faster.”
Mayfield added the storm’s sheer size led to more evacuations — and need for shelters.
“It wasn’t your typical sheltering situation because it was such a large evacuation, prompted by the storm surge that was predicted for Southwest Florida overall really,” Mayfield said.
Mayfield also underscored the seriousness of Irma.
“This wasn’t the one to mess around with,” Mayfield said.
Brozek said she spent her time sitting, walking and “trying to help people” while in Germain Arena. When the roof leaked, she added it was a somewhat chaotic experience.
“Everybody scrambled that was down there, everybody had to scramble and move,” Brozek said.
Mayfield said he strives to find solutions to expedite the process.
“Maybe they don’t have to answer every single question on those forms, maybe we can shorten that form, which we’ve done,” Mayfield said.
Animals will also be allowed at shelters moving forward.
“We understand,” Mayfield said. “We’ve done studies and they’ve shown that people won’t leave their house without their cat or their dog.”
The county said they’ll also use more volunteers, as Brozek said she was unable to do so.
“Well I wanted to volunteer and … help and they told me no,” Brozek said.
County workers will be called into action and citizens will have the opportunity to help in the future, and “this is not a one agency effort.”
“I think the biggest takeaway for us was preparedness absolutely works,” Mayfield said.
Brozek said she returned to downed branches, ficus trees and a broken fence at her house.
“We were lucky,” Brozek said.
Mayfield also urged people to prepare early with a plan, a disaster supply kit and have other information readily available.
Across Southwest Florida, other counties are amending their shelter guidelines.
Collier County also said they’re reassessing the shelter space and looking to expand public and pet shelters.
Charlotte County also said all of the general population shelters accept pets with their vaccination records and carriers.
Emergency managers stressed shelters should be a last resort.
View more information on Lee County Emergency Management below: