Hurricane Irma Blows Through Town

The howling winds Sunday night gave way to the droning of generators on Monday morning in the aftermath of the Bay Area’s worst brush with a hurricane in nearly a century.

On Saturday, September 9, when most area residents were either evacuated or hunkered down to weather Hurricane Irma, the forecast showed that the deadly storm, which had already flattened parts of the Caribbean, was potentially bearing down on Pinellas County.

The path of Irma, however, was far from direct. With plenty of forecast shifts that saw residents from all over the state ultimately evacuate into danger, Irma was an unpredictable, wild storm that will leave most of Florida cleaning up for weeks, if not months. In some parts, it will be years.

Despite widespread power outages and downed trees, in Gulfport and the surrounding communities many residents are feeling lucky.

“First of all, we dodged a huge bullet, getting the storm that we did as opposed to what we thought we were going to get,” said Gulfport Mayor Sam Henderson on Tuesday, September 12. “I know we sustained some damage, but overall, we came out of this smelling like a rose.”

Henderson had high praise for the city workers in their preparation for Irma.

“Our guys were really ahead of the curve on everything they did,” he said. “We sat in on the emergency operations conference calls for the county, and everything that was suggested to be done, they were already on it. They did a fantastic job.”

Gulfport infrastructure weathered the storm well, according to Gulfport City Manager Jim O’Reilly, including the sanitary sewer system. The lower tide combined with excellent preparation kept everything in good order at the Municipal Marina, he said.

With the exception of isolated looting at the Sunoco on Gulfport Boulevard – it was a quick smash-and-grab incident, the city manager explained – the people of Gulfport followed the rules, he said, listened to evacuation orders and were generally well-prepared for Irma.

In its capacity as a hurricane shelter, Boca Ciega High School took in approximately 600 people, O’Reilly reported.

The mission now, said the mayor, is to clear the roads and get brush cleared. He noted that the city is collecting brush and debris from residents at no charge, adding that he hoped that would be completed as soon as possible. “We will get to you,” he said.

Henderson noted that Gulfport’s trash schedule is back on track, and most city buildings should be open by the end of the week.

The storm, which saw a rare mandatory A and B level evacuation for Pinellas County, did not deliver on the feared promise of epic storm surge, or in widespread flooding.

Gulfport City Manager Jim O’Reilly explained that the timing of the storm was fortuitous for the area.

“Due to excellent meteorological luck, we were able to avoid the anticipated storm surge,” said O’Reilly, noting that tide times were a big factor. “The equation worked out well.”

But Irma has left her mark. Nearly every block is home to a downed tree, flattened fence or compromised structure. There were downed power lines in all communities, revealing what may be the most immediately difficult result of Irma’s hurricane force winds in the area: thousands of residents left without power.

O’Reilly reported that Pinellas County Emergency Management has told the city that Duke Energy should have all power restored by Friday to southern Pinellas Communities, including Gulfport.

That will be a welcome relief not only for residents, but also for city staff who, on Wednesday, were working at Gulfport City Hall on a generator, but without air conditioning.

“Just like everybody else,” said O’Reilly, “we’re sweating here without AC.”

A downed light pole was blocked off with tape and shopping carts in the Winn Dixie parking lot in South Pasadena on Wednesday.

The cleanup began almost immediately, with scores of utility trucks in the area. Duke Energy says all of southern Pinellas should have power restored by midnight Friday.

A felled tree did serious damage to an area home, taking out the entire front porch.

A snapped branch on a tree in Northwest Park.

Hurricane Irma uprooted old-growth trees all around the Bay area, including at this St. Petersburg house, which survived a lucky miss.

Power lines and trees were a dangerous mix during Hurricane Irma. This tree took out the power line behind Holy Name, as well as sections of the church’s fencing.

The Pontiac Apartments on 29th Avenue South were among the properties in Gulfport with large tree damage.

The bars on east side of Shore Boulevard, including Manatees, opened their doors and moved their sandbags aside for customers on Monday after the storm cleared. Cash and drinks only, of course.

Shops and restaurants boarded up on Sunday for the arrival of Hurricane Irma.

“Gulfport Strong” became the town motto this week as residents prepared for a direct hit from Hurricane Irma. Stella’s and other restaurants and shops were boarded up along the waterfront on Sunday morning before the storm.

Daniel Carawan, a TowBoat U.S. employee, prepares to launch this rescue boat at the Gulfport Marina after the storm.

Fritz Wamhoff and his father Jack clean debris at the Pontiac Apartments. “We have been doing a lot of cleanup and several downed trees on R. W. Caldwell’s properties throughout Gulfport.”

“We were lucky, we just had a few trees down and branches laying around the grounds, was our only damage,” said Gulfport Elementary maintenance worker Otis Keels.

Jason Mackey, left, with Spectrum Communications, said on Tuesday, September 12: “We are just getting started, our first day after Irma.”

Hari, the owner of the Sunoco convenience store on Gulfport Boulevard, stands in front of the door that was smashed during the storm in an isolated looting event.

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