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Miami grand jury examines Hurricane Irma and has a suggestion: better evacuation

Traffic piled up on the Florida Turnpike near Homestead four days before Hurricane Irma struck as residents and tourists fled the Keys. A typical four-drive to Orlando from Miami stretched to eight hours as traffic jammed northbound highways.  (Al Diaz/Miami Herald via AP)
Traffic piled up on the Florida Turnpike near Homestead four days before Hurricane Irma struck as residents and tourists fled the Keys. A typical four-drive to Orlando from Miami stretched to eight hours as traffic jammed northbound highways. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald via AP) AP

Just as the hurricane season rounds the bend into what’s typically peak time for fierce storms, a Miami-Dade County grand jury has issued a report assessing the region’s response to Irma, one of the most powerful hurricanes on record, with a short list of recommendations.

While the report released Thursday avoided assigning blame, grand jurors decided some things could have been done better, from improving evacuations to helping the elderly.

After the largest evacuation order in state history, which included 600,000 Miami-Dade County residents, highways slowed to a crawl as traffic piled up. Travel time to Orlando, normally a four-hour journey, doubled to eight hours, jurors said. Motorists ran out of gas and with no power, rest stations shut down.

“The South Florida traffic snafu became one of the first major crises that would be revealed in advance of Hurricane Irma’s arrival,” the grand jury said.

To help solve the problem, jurors said the state should consider reversing southbound traffic flow on Florida’s Turnpike and ensure gas stations have enough fuel. They also argued that emergency officials can do a better job communicating which people should evacuate.

“People should run from water, but hide from wind,” they said.

State transportation officials have said they did not reverse traffic because they needed to send emergency workers and supplies south, where the storm was expected to have its greatest impact. In February, Gov. Rick Scott ordered fixes including opening road shoulders to traffic and widening the turnpike. Keeping gas stations — which the state required to install generators after Hurricane Wilma in 2005 — supplied with fuel is do-able but is not something governments alone can ensure, said Miami-Dade’s newly appointed emergency operations chief, Frank Rollason.

“You need the roads open, the escorts, the fuel to be on hand at Port Everglades,” he said. “So we’ll take care of those issues and then the shipping industry will divert the ships away from ports.”

In Miami- Dade County, jurors urged the county to do a better job working with churches and volunteer groups to provide water, ice and other services, something the county is already doing.

““They’ve got a lot to contribute. It’s just disjointed at the present time and we recognized that before this report,” said Rollason, who met with groups last month.

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An emergency worker moves a resident from the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills after Irma knocked out power and left residents in sweltering heat. Twelve deaths were eventually blamed on the heat. Amy Beth Bennett/Sun Sentinel Amy Beth Bennett Sun Sentinel

Jurors also urged other governments to copy Miami-Dade County plans to take over operating shelters after staffing came up short during Irma. They also praised a county move to improve conditions for the elderly in public housing by requiring developers to make complexes more storm-ready and urged other governments to do the same.

After Irma knocked out power to a Broward County nursing home leaving residents in sweltering heat, 12 died. The state passed a law requiring nursing homes and assisted living facilities to have a plan to move residents or have generators. In Miami-Dade, developers must also outfit public housing projects with community rooms powered by generators and equipped with kitchens. Developments must also hire or pay a trained resident to oversee assistance after a storm.

Jurors also suggested the county begin distributing color-coded door hangers to signal distress. Rollason said the hangers are already used in neighborhoods with enough volunteers to help manage it.

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich
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