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.”