City cheers residents’ level of storm preparedness

On Tuesday, Aug. 27, the City of Port St. Lucie issued its first Tropical Storm Dorian update. The storm was passing over Saint Lucia, part of the Lesser Antilles, a little better than 1,500 miles away. Christina Proulx, the city’s emergency operations administrator, said people took notice quickly.

“Residents took this very, very seriously, as did the city,” she said. “That’s what we always want to see.”

The storm quickly gained strength and graduated to Hurricane Dorian.

On Aug. 28, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued Executive Order 19-189 declaring a state of emergency in several Florida counties, including St. Lucie. In a press release the governor urged “all Floridians on the East Coast to prepare for impacts, as the latest forecasts from the National Hurricane Center project Hurricane Dorian will make landfall on Florida’s East Coast as a major hurricane.”

Brig. Gen. Paul B. Chauncey III and others in the Florida National Guard were called up to ready for Dorian. He’s the assistant adjutant general for training installations and programs. His job is to imagine the worst and get ready for it.

“I’ve been doing this business for a long time,” Chauncey told St. Lucie Voice after Dorian passed Florida. “My storm experience has its genesis with Andrew. That’s my frame of reference.”

Among the about 4,800 Guard members eventually activated for Dorian were members of 1st Battalion, 124th Infantry, 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team. About 2,500 of them had just gotten back from summer training in Mississippi; the 1st Battalion, 124th Infantry has elements in Fort Pierce, West Palm Beach and Cocoa.

Dorian famously intensified rapidly. Within a couple days of the Guard’s activation, Dorian hit Saffir-Simpson scale Category 5 status and windspeeds just kept increasing, eventually hitting 185 mph. Chauncey started thinking about the National Guard’s catastrophic planning scenario.

“For the first time that I can recall it really looked like that’s what we were fixing to have,” he said.

The catastrophic planning scenario is a proposed Category 5 hurricane hitting one of the most populated areas of South Florida, slowing to dump so much water on Lake Okeechobee that its dikes breach, then turning northwest to hit Tampa. That hypothetical storm then regains strength and moisture in the Gulf of Mexico before making a second Florida landfall around Pensacola and Panama City. No recorded storm has ever done exactly all that. But, all of the elements have happened among various storms.

For example, the 1903 Atlantic hurricane 3 made landfall at Fort Lauderdale, passed just south of Lake Okeechobee, exited the state near Tampa Bay and made a second landfall at Panama City.

Chauncey was in common company fearing that Dorian was going to be the proverbial big one. Sarah Prohoska, the city’s assistant communications director, said the emergency communications website, www.cityofpsl.com/dorian, was quickly popular, as were Dorian-related posts on the city’s social media pages.

“Our social media posts were reaching about 10,000 people,” Prohoska said. “Some were reaching 12,000, 15,000 people.”

For the first time the city used Facebook’s live-stream app for hurricane briefings.

“We used Facebook Live to do some briefings in the days with the most intense action,” she said. “Those were very popular. Residents were able to directly ask (city officials) questions that were answered right away.”

The city opened four self-service yard waste collection sites, including one at McChesney Park in St. Lucie West, on Aug. 29. That was to reduce debris that’s hazardous in wind and flooding. On Aug. 30 there was a special meeting of the Port St. Lucie City Council to declare a state of emergency. The city issued Hurricane Dorian UPDATE #4 that day recommending residents shutter or board their homes. The next day St. Lucie County opened emergency shelters.

A couple days later, Dorian made landfall and famously stalled as a powerful storm over the Bahamas – the emergency planners’ nightmare scenario. Proulx said she watched on with a mixture of historic storms in mind. The 1992 Andrew, of course, with its wind damage, but also the 2008 Tropical Storm Fay, a slow-moving, erratic storm that flooded much of Florida. About 8,000 homes in St. Lucie County were significantly flooded damaged in that storm. Proulx took comfort from the anecdotal evidence that people in Port St. Lucie had largely readied for exactly the sort of storm she was picturing.

“We feel so proud and thankful for what the residents did,” she said.

Dorian resumed its advance toward Florida on Sept. 3 – then turned northward. Dennis Pickle, the district manager, said the St. Lucie West Services District’s weather station recorded wind speeds up to 45 mph and rainfall at 6/10ths of an inch in a 24-hour period as Dorian went by the Treasure Coast.

The city closed its emergency operations center on Sept. 4. No major damage was reported. Chauncey said, at press time, he had gotten reports of little damage from Dorian anywhere in Florida.

“It’s been minimal,” he said. “I think the last report I heard, the biggest concern we have as a state is beach erosion.”

But, remember, his job is to imagine the worst. He wants no one in Florida relaxing their guards.

“We still have half of the (North Atlantic hurricane) season to go,” Chauncey said.

Hurricane Jeanne made landfall on the Treasure Coast on Sept. 26 in 2004. The massively deadly Lake Okeechobee hurricane did the same on Sept. 17, 1928. At least 2,500 drowned in that historic storm when the lake flooded southward.

Major hurricanes that have hit Florida in October include Michael, last year, Wilma in 2005, Opal in 1995, King in 1950, and the 1944 Cuba-Florida hurricane. There were also large October hurricanes that hit the state in 1909 and 1906.

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