A year after Hurricane Irma, South Florida is better prepared for the Big One — finally

Are we ready for the next big hurricane?
Are we ready for the next big hurricane? Getty Images

A year ago this Monday, Hurricane Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys. Although it only brushed many of us — it punished Middle Keys residents where homes were inundated and insurance-related struggles continue. In terms of wind speed, it was the strongest hurricane to hit Florida since Charley in 2004.

But Irma did something other hurricanes hadn’t. It gave rise to a robust concept that we need to be more resilient as a community and as individuals in the face of catastrophic storms. As a community, we need to be better prepared so that we can bounce back quicker, with less damage, when a storm hits. Individually, we need to rely on ourselves and less on government help.

This tired cycle has gotten old: After a hurricane passes, we are left without electricity, gas, internet connections and fully functioning supermarkets. Following Irma, Miami-Dade Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava was assigned an after-action report.

At the time, Levine Cava wrote that, although we were spared the worst of Irma, the disruption that residents endured “highlights the need to redouble our collective efforts to create a more resilient county.” She was right.

Here are some of the main common-sense recommendations from the commissioner’s report:

Residents must be able to secure gas more quickly, before and after the storm; long before a storm hits, FPL can coordinate with residents and local governments on who is responsible for trees encroaching on FPL lines; FPL should give people more information about who gets electricity restored first and why; cellphone service providers should be better integrated into the county’s disaster planning and communications systems; and Miami-Dade should work to make all of its hurricane shelters pet-friendly.

The University of Miami recently conducted a study with the same mission. Researchers asked Floridians what they thought went right or wrong as Hurricane Irma approached.

The University of Miami’s College of Arts & Sciences surveyed a representative sample of 2,085 Floridians from Aug. 8 to 21. They asked how prepared residents were for the hurricane season. Their findings are part an initiative to better understand the impact of hurricanes on South Florida.

So what did they learn? Over 80 percent of respondents reported that they felt “very” or “somewhat” prepared. Over 90 percent of the Floridians surveyed already had or were able to obtain, essentials such as non-perishable food, bottled water, flashlights and batteries.

That’s good news. At the start of 2018’s hurricane season, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez told residents they should plan to have enough supplies for three full days. Most of the changes enacted by the county seek to upgrade and update shelters, which will no longer fall under the sole domain of American Red Cross volunteers. Shelter operations were a problem as Irma loomed, the mayor conceded to the Editorial Board. “We have now trained 2,000 county employees to operate shelters,” he said.

“We worked with the school system to open and designate more schools to be shelters. We have trained 300 school principals and assistant principals to be shelter managers.”

Ultimately, the UM report found that Hurricane Irma showed that, “Floridians are resilient, resourceful and largely prepared, but more work by all of us is needed to protect life and property going forward.”

We’re encouraged, because it means that fewer people are expecting the “cavalry” to arrive or, at least, arrive quickly.