Irma: Behind the Scenes in Gulfport


“Have a plan for people and pets,” said Councilperson Christine Brown, left, with her cat Marble. Brown and Shelly Vail, right, who both volunteered in Gulfport for Hurricane Irma, pre and post storm, are pictured in the special concrete safe room in the home of Brown and her husband, Lou Worthington. Brown and Vail worked the telephones in the city’s emergency call center to assist people with special needs to evacuate while Brown also assisted in the field on busses taking people and pets to and from shelters. “Shelters are hard because they are not comfortable for people or pets,” said Brown. “A shelter is not where you want to be if you don’t have to be. If you have a friend in a non-evacuation zone, plan for that.” Photo by Debbie Wolfe.

Have a plan.”

This is the most essential post-Hurricane Irma tip that Councilperson Christine Brown wants Gulportians to know for the next storm.

She and other volunteers worked with city staff members as one team behind the scenes in City Hall before, during and after Gulfport’s closest brush with a hurricane in decades. They answered phones in the call center. They located and facilitated the evacuation of residents with special needs to an area shelter via buses, shuttles or private vehicles. They did well checks and coordinated across all municipal departments regarding the welfare of residents, their pets and property.

What they accomplished was mostly out of public view. This story provides a few examples of what was happening behind the scenes when Hurricane Irma came to town.

As part of the city of Gulfport’s emergency operations efforts during a hurricane, a call center is activated to field phone calls from residents and to coordinate evacuation efforts for people with special needs. Pictured from left are Kathy Tatay, deputy city clerk; Leslie DeMuth, city clerk and records custodian; Councilwoman Christine Brown; and, Fire Chief James Marenkovic. Photo by Justin Shea, Gulfport cultural facilities events supervisor.

Special Needs Evacuees

Residents with special evacuation needs register with the county and during a crisis, this list is shared with local authorities. In Gulfport’s case, the point person was Fire Chief James Marenkovic. But, the list during Irma only contained a person’s name and a unique ID number, said Brown. “There was no contact address or telephone number.”

Enter volunteer Shelly Vail and other locals like GEMS Dispatch Driver Jay Edwards and Senior Center Supervisor Rachel Caltaldo. Between them, and others, along with a reference book kept by the fire department, a master list was created and “no person was left behind,” said Vail, referencing a motto used by military veterans whom she often volunteers with.

“I have talked to the city manager and the fire chief about how can we do it better next time,” said Brown. “We need to tighten up the way we’re doing special needs evacuations for our people. The county takes care of the shelters and that’s at the level it needs to be. But, when we start evacuating our people, we need to have a process in place because we know our town. We know our people.”

During the days leading up to the arrival of Hurricane Irma, the city of Gulfport offered sandbags to residents in the parking lot of City Hall. The city distributed more than 25,000 sandbags before the storm. Pictured are residents and city staff shoveling sand and readying bags for transport. Photo by Justin Shea, Gulfport cultural facilities events supervisor.

About the Area’s Special Needs and Pet Shelter

The shelter at John Hopkins Middle School, 701 16th Street S., St. Petersburg, “is quite an eye-opening experience,” said Brown. “I recommend that you either find a place to go that’s not a shelter or make sure that you are prepared to shelter in your home because [conditions] are hard – they are not comfortable for people or pets.”

For instance, people slept in a communal room on cots and pets had to stay in a separate room in their crates without bathroom breaks. “It was difficult to see that,” said Brown.

“It’s not a pretty place,” said Brown. “When we went back after the storm to pick them up,” some elderly people “had a hard time walking [because] they were stiff from not being in their own” home or a familiar place.

What Every Individual Can Do to Help

Before the storm, Brown and her husband Lou Worthington took in frozen food from their neighbors to keep it safe thanks to the multiple generators at their home. “We did it so people wouldn’t lose that money,” said Brown.

Worthington also assisted others who needed help boarding up their windows and he loaned a couple of their generators to people in need. After the storm, he was helping people take down their window and door coverings.

Residents throughout Gulfport were doing the same kind of sharing and caring.

Brown and Worthington have a commercial ice-making machine in their garage and after the storm, they teamed up with the city’s fire department to offer free ice to people who brought their own containers.

When the power goes out, sewer lift stations stop and this means that storm water and untreated sewage can spill into the streets and people’s yards. The guy that was running back and forth between generators to keep the lift stations working in Gulfport was Larry Cooper, Jr. “I saw him at 10:30 p.m. at night working hard,” said Brown. “I know he and other city staff get paid, but you know what? To have somebody that would do that at night during a hurricane is pretty special.”

Wolfgang Deininger, a volunteer and board member for the non-profit Gulfport Neighbors, was one of the many locals helping others. He remembers a man in a wheelchair who was picking up small debris after the storm. “When we each do what we can, it makes a difference,” he said.

All over town, people with grills, generators or both hosted meals for their neighbors when the power was out for days. Others foraged for ice then shared it with those who were homebound and hot.

Shelly Vail, left, a citizen volunteer, and Sue Harle, CERT volunteer, work the telephones in the Gulfport Police Department to assist city staff in the location and evacuation of residents with special needs to an area shelter during the days leading up to Hurricane Irma. Photo by Gail Biron, administrative assistant to the Gulfport chief of police.

Have a Plan

“My advice is find a friend in a non-evacuation zone even if [they are] just in Pinellas Park,” said Brown. “But, try to make a plan for people and pets because being in a shelter is not the best vacation.”

Brown and her husband have added a concrete room to their Gulfport home that is their safe area for weathering a hurricane. It is stocked with everything their immediate family – both people and pets – will need for two weeks. Family photos and other heirlooms are also located there during a major storm.

People need to make decisions about fortifying their homes or make arrangements to evacuate to where they and their pets will be in comfortable spaces, she said.

Some elderly in Gulfport live alone and have no family, said Brown. “Each person needs to have a plan in place in advance,” she said.

Many people who evacuated gathered items they could easily carry in one or two small bags, said Brown.

Final Thoughts about Irma

At the Tuesday, September 19 council meeting, Councilmember Michael Fridovich said, “Leadership is tested by crises. And, our leadership under City Manager Jim O’Reilly passed with flying colors.”

O’Reilly was one of a handful of city staff who stayed at the city hall command center, away from his home and family, during the extent of the hurricane.

“He lived on energy drinks,” said Brown.

Police Chief Robert Vincent, Public Works Director Don Sopak and Public Works Superintendent Tom Nicholls were also key city staff members who were working behind the scenes during the hurricane, said Brown. In addition, Mayor Sam Henderson helped at the call center and with the evacuation effort, she said.

Justin Shea, cultural facilities events supervisor, took phone calls after hours on his city cell phone when the call center shut down at 8 p.m.

“He was on call 24 hours a day so he’s a special guy,” said Brown.

Also at the council meeting, O’Reilly said, “I want to thank everyone who supported our staff’s efforts the past two weeks. They took great pride in what they were doing and I can’t thank them enough.”

In her summary remarks at the end of the council meeting, Brown said, “The character of our town is our people. It’s not what colors our houses or businesses are painted, or what kind of buildings they look like. Our character is our people. It’s our history.”



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