Mayor’s Corner…not your ordinary week

Mayor Bill Barnett

If I were to turn the clock back twelve years to October 24, 2005 and the week leading up to that date it was almost deja-vu to me starting on September 3, 2017. That fateful week in October turned out to be hurricane Wilma. The week ahead looked to be routine.

Naples in September is brutally hot, quiet, lots of rain and all of us wishing for mid-October when we step outside one morning and break out with an immediate smile because it’s cool and the humidity has gone even if it’s only for a few days we know nice weather is on the way. I was prepared for our Wednesday City Council meeting and on Monday and Tuesday it
was City business as usual except I was watching the weather reports and ever since Wilma I watch those reports during hurricane season perhaps a little closer than the average viewer would. Once our City manager along with the Fire Chief started sending special weather reports out early that week we became a little more aware of hurricane Irma.

Being the eternal optimist I’m thinking the chances are slim that we will get hit and by Wednesday Irma was one powerful storm and picking up strength as she rolled along spreading wrath and destruction in her path. I’m not going to rehash a lot of what happened because we all know the end result. However; with that being said, I will share with you my thoughts and plans.

Our City and County staff and the County’s Emergency Operations Center were mobilized and pre-hurricane, mid hurricane and post hurricane plans were put in place. Although precautionary at first it was all seriousness and every possible scenario had to be anticipated from the smallest to the largest. We had set up our own Emergency Operations Center and Our City Manager and Fire and Police operations were working from there.

By late Wednesday early voluntary evacuations had started and although if Irma was going to hit Florida it wouldn’t be until late Saturday or early Sunday. Governor Scott had advised everyone in the state of Florida to evacuate if possible and it wasn’t long before the reports of massive traffic jams, gas shortages and the availability of rooms was zero. On the first interview with the Weather Channel on Thursday night they asked me why we hadn’t ordered mandatory evacuation yet and I answered because if they had no set place to go it would be more hazardous for them. I immediately had criticism by way
of e-mail but I remained steadfast on that.

Friday the City and County ordered mandatory evacuation. I debated just staying at City Hall as I did for Wilma, but thought
better of it because of the projected wind strength and storm surge. Mid-afternoon my wife Chris and I took our dog and two cats, water, snacks, etc, and checked in at the Hilton. We were with numerous City first responders, other families and many pets. After getting them checked in I went back to City Hall. We knew Florida was going to get hammered but the forecast was that Irma’s path was going to take her up the East Coast. Still, that hurricane was 400 miles wide and regardless we were going to have effects.

It’s now Friday about 4:30 in the afternoon. I know from Wilma experience when my phone starts to ring and the national news media wants to set up interviews starting tonight and continuing Saturday and in to Sunday and Monday that was not a good sign. Each time Irma moved a degree closer to us I ran a checklist in my head. I had all the confidence in the world that our City Manager and his staff had taken every precaution they possibly could and with the help of the local media our City residents had either evacuated or hunkered down to ride it out or checked in at a shelter. That evening although subdued
we were ready.

The lobby in the Hilton turned out to be a makeshift gathering place and information center for all of us that were staying there. I was given the use of the Concierge desk and used it for correspondence, updates, and sharing one phone charging station that was generator driven. Later that evening I got the news that I didn’t want to hear that Irma was not going up the East Coast but up the center of the State and of course that changed again to Irma was going to directly target Naples.

Saturday morning, we lost our power. It was rainy and windy and the city of Naples looked like a ghost town. I went to City Hall where we had a skeleton crew answering phones and trying to answer questions that were all hurricane related. By then my phone was one constant ring. The networks all asked me basically the same question, “What is your major concern with this monster storm approaching?” My answer remained twofold, making sure our citizens had information about what
to do to be safe and storm surge. The predictions were that we could get from a 10 to 15-foot surge which would have been catastrophic for us. Meanwhile our City Manager and his staff along with Collier County’s Emergency Operations Center were constantly updating us.

I knew what I had experienced from Wilma was not going to compare with what was going to be expected from Irma. We had the Weather Channel crew staying at the Hilton, along with CNN, and some of our Fire and Police First Responders. Late Saturday afternoon I went to the Edgewater Beach Hotel to do an interview update that was being done at the beach. The wind was howling and bands of rain were relentlessly pounding us from all sides. I couldn’t wait to get back to the Hilton and
I decided that one job I didn’t want would have been a member of the traveling Weather Channel storm chasers who throughout the rest of this hurricane ran on pure adrenaline. Back at the Hilton it was only a matter of hours before our first responders were going to be on lock down and would not be able to respond to any calls because they would be in danger if they ventured out.

Sunday morning at 12:30 a.m. I had my last phone interview and went to bed. Fortunately for all of our pet dogs that needed a facility to use, and until it got so bad none of us could take them out, the Hilton parking garage worked well. Sleep was out of the question and it was eerily quiet with nothing but rain and wind pounding the windows. Sunday morning was ugly and getting worse. We shared our provisions that we had brought with everyone and the Hilton Staff supplied whatever they had. Storm surge was inevitable and there was nothing to do but wait. Updates were coming in via cell phone and battery operated
radios that the Florida Keys were being hit hard and that the eye was going to go directly over us by late afternoon. Early afternoon we had to abandon the lobby and go to our rooms. I was still talking with national news media from CNN, MSNBC, Weather Channel, Bloomberg, and a myriad of others. They wanted to know how did I feel, what were my thoughts, how was I coping, and of course the not knowing what would await me after the storm had passed was the most stressful.

At 3:30 p.m. Irma was approaching Marco Island and heading for us within the next hour. Our room faced South and
was on the second floor. It was perhaps the scariest scene I had ever witnessed looking out of that window just prior to the eye passing over us. Palm trees bent over from the raw power of the wind coupled with the hardest rain I had ever seen was hard to describe. Conversation was almost non-existent between Chris and I. All of a sudden, she looked at me and said, “I wonder what the score of the Buffalo Bills game is?” We had to laugh and then a text on my phone from our daughter Kim who was in Boston and watching the unfolding scene said you have about 10 minutes to take Zsazsa (our bulldog) out because the eye is directly over you. Sure enough it became calm the wind and rain stopped and there was a beeline of owners and pets scurrying for the lobby door so they could do their business. Seven minutes later we had to get back in as the wind had changed directions and the back of the storm ramped up.

And then the next text that I will never forget appeared on my phone. It was from Bill Moss our City Manager. It said “No storm surge.” My first thought was that he was joking but I knew better. I called him and he briefly told me that the back of the storm was breaking up and we would have perhaps a minor surge, but nothing like was expected. I knew from that point on that no matter how bad it might be when we could get out and assess the damage that we escaped catastrophic damage to our City of Naples. Irma started to decrease as she moved on and Sunday night about 11:30 p.m. some of our first responders ventured out for a very brief assessment of what lay ahead for us on Monday.

Today is October 1st. Next month I will do part two of this article which will be the post Irma wrap up. I will tell about my heartfelt and heartbreak experiences and more. Throughout the last three weeks I am thankful for the wonderful
Nationwide and International e-mails and correspondence that I have received. I am also honored to be your Mayor!
I do respond to e-mails:

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