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Post-hurricane re-entry: “This is not going to be a repeat of Charley”

September 14, 2017
Jessica Salmond - News Editor ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

The sitting Town Council wants to be sure that in the event of a mandatory evacuation, residents should not opt to stay on the island for fear of not getting back to their homes.

"Everyone remembers Charley and the trouble getting back on," Mayor Dennis Boback said. "This is not going to be a repeat of Charley, I hope you keep that at heart."

If evacuation occurs, the Lee County Sheriff's Office, Fort Myers Beach Fire Department, Town Manager Roger Hernstadt and Boback will return to the island to do any immediate safety assessment and make sure there are no live power lines in the water. Then, the Sheriff's Office will begin letting residents and businesses with re-entry passes back onto the island.

Boback encouraged everyone to evacuate, especially if mandated.

"If you stay here, you will be on your own," he warned. "You need to be prepared. My advice is to leave."

Fire Chief Matt Love reiterated the importance of people understanding that in a disaster situation, emergency services cannot be guaranteed.

Fire trucks cannot cross the bridge once winds reach more than 40 mph, he said, as the vehicles are at risk from the wind.

"It's important to understand, if 911 is not available, we can't get to you," he said.

The fire department has a layered approach to returning to the island. Right before the storm, he's focused on his firefighters attending to their families.

"We're trying to make sure their families are safe so the Fort Myers Beach fire fighters can get back to work," he said. "Remember, they have families too."

Due to the potential impact of Hurricane Irma, the Town Council assembled Wednesday, Sept. 6 for a special meeting to declare a local state of emergency for the town in advance of the storm.

Vice Mayor Tracey Gore said that the town was in a much better place to handle a disaster at this time, under the guidance of Town Manager Hernstadt.

"Roger has been through this before," she said. "The power lines are the main thing, and then we'll get people back home.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Charley, it was chaotic for residents to attempt returning to the island.

It took nearly five days for residents to be permitted to get back to their homes. Following the storm, many residents and town council members were critical of the way the town administration, law enforcement, and emergency services organizations had handled the situation.

Those who had evacuated Fort Myers Beach had to sit under the Matanzas Pass Bridge for days, waiting to get permission to get back on, said now-Vice Mayor Tracey Gore.

"It was a wild time.Everybody's tempers were flaring, everyone was freaking out. People just wanted to go home," she said.

In the Observer's August and September 2004 issues, multiple residents wrote letters to the editor angry over the treatment they received; some demanded for the firing of the then town manager Marsha Segal-George.

Gore said part of the problem was re-entry was being perceived by some as a game of favoritism; at the time, the town did not have a re-entry pass. Residents were supposed to show their drivers' licenses as proof, but lots of "looker-loos" were getting on, too.

"The perception was that some people were getting special treatment," she said. "What was happening and what was perceived to be happening was mixed in with emotion."

Gore - and the rest of council - doesn't want residents and businesses to think about the town's reaction after Charley and get spooked about evacuating.

Boback said at the special meeting that power lines would be the biggest priority to make sure live lines weren't laying in water and risking electrocution, but residents and business owners would be give access as soon as possible even if other utilities were still unrestored. The town also said it wanted to keep out the "looker-loos" for as long as possible so residents could start to rebuild without the beach being crowded by those who had not been affected by the storm.

"We don't want to deter people from evacuating because theyre scared they can't get back," Hernstadt said. "If you want to get back and pioneer it, that's fine."



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