Miami Beach

Returning to Miami Beach after Irma was a headache. The city wants to make it easier

Timelapse: Entering Miami Beach a day after Hurricane Irma

Watch Miami Herald photographer David Santiago's tour of Miami Beach one day after Hurricane Irma impacted South Florida on Sept. 11, 2017.
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Watch Miami Herald photographer David Santiago's tour of Miami Beach one day after Hurricane Irma impacted South Florida on Sept. 11, 2017.

Adrian Gonzalez was prepared to re-open his Miami Beach restaurant the day after Hurricane Irma struck.

He had power and a line of customers — who, like him, had stayed on the island during the storm — waiting outside the door. “Is the coffee machine working?” they wanted to know.

But there was one problem: Gonzalez didn’t have any employees. His workers couldn’t get through the police checkpoints blocking access to the island, and it wasn’t clear when they’d be able to return.

They weren’t the only people who were confused. A line of cars stretched along the MacArthur Causeway from the Arsht Center to Jungle Island as residents tried to return home. They didn’t know that Miami Beach was still closed as cleanup crews removed fallen power lines and other debris, and that they wouldn’t be able to enter until the following day.

“There was no clear path of what the protocol was going to be. No one really knew what they needed to do,” said Gonzalez, who owns David’s Café in South Beach. “It was a disaster on the causeway.”

The city had also registered emergency response teams for hotels and condominium buildings — personnel designated by their buildings as the best people able to assess preliminary damage, turn utilities on and off, and make other post-disaster decisions while access to the city was still restricted. But after Irma, the re-entry system for these teams proved “unmanageable,” Juan Mestas, the city’s acting emergency management director, said in an email.

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A Miami Beach resident was stopped by police as he tried to return home the day after Hurricane Irma. Joey Flechas jflechas@miamiherald.com

“Many of the assigned personnel who had all of the proper identification and signed letters from condo and hotel management were still denied access because the system was too cumbersome to implement quickly,” he said.

This year, Miami Beach is hoping to improve communication after an evacuation and make it easier for residents to get home and employees to get back to work.

The city recently launched a new emergency alert program, MBAlert, which gives residents real-time updates on storms and other emergency situations. Residents can enter their zip code when they register to get neighborhood-specific information. They can also decide whether they want to be contacted via text message, email, push notification or an old-fashioned phone call. The notification service will attempt to contact a resident via the preferred method first and try other methods until he or she confirms receiving the information. (Miami Beach residents can sign up by texting MBALERT to 888777.)

The city is also considering distributing stickers for cars so police can wave residents through when it’s safe to return to Miami Beach, rather than stopping drivers to ask for a license or other proof of residency. Verifying residency slowed down the re-entry process after Irma.

“There were people waiting on the causeways last time three, five, six hours to get back on Miami Beach, and we want to avoid that this time during hurricane season,” said Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, who directed the city’s emergency management department to come up with a re-entry system at a committee meeting on Wednesday.

Without an efficient re-entry system, she said, some residents might decide not to evacuate next time a hurricane approaches. “The flip side to this is that people who left last time who couldn’t get back on, they’re not going to leave next time,” she said.

Miami Beach residents begin clean up after Hurricane Irma on Sept. 12, 2017.

In Monroe County, residents register for windshield stickers that are color-coded based on where they live. That enables police to let residents return home as soon as their area is deemed safe, rather than waiting for the all-clear. Miami Beach’s emergency management department is considering developing a similar program and plans to present a proposal to the City Commission’s Neighborhood Committee next month.

“Our goal is to get the community back to pre-disaster condition in the shortest time possible,” Mestas said in an email. “This starts with making Miami Beach safe for residents, business owners and employees.” But, he added at Wednesday’s meeting, emergency personnel want to make sure that criminals can’t take advantage of the re-entry system.

“If we give a sticker to a vehicle then there’s no telling who’s going to be in that vehicle,” Mestas said, adding that he wanted to make sure any re-entry system didn’t create “more problems than we’re trying to solve.”

Gonzalez of David’s Café said he hopes city officials come up with a new system quickly. Hurricane season, which started June 1 and runs through Nov. 30, is already under way.

“My big issue is we’re a year later and there’s still nothing in place,” he said. “We don’t want to be in this situation every year.”

Miami Beach has already made some changes to its hurricane preparation plans.

This year, the city is working with businesses, in addition to hotels and condominium associations, to register emergency response teams, and hopes to offer training beginning in the early fall, Mestas said.

In an effort to make sure older residents register with the county’s Emergency and Evacuation Assistance Program, the city has also begun requiring residential buildings where more than half of the tenants are over 61 to prove that they’ve encouraged eligible residents to register in order to get a business tax receipt. Buildings with a majority of older residents that get money from the city also have to encourage registration in order to receive public funding.

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