Last October, forecasters predicated that Hurricane Matthew would scrape along beachside Brevard County as a massive Category 4 storm, unleashing devastating wind gusts up to 140 mph and up to 11 feet of storm surge after nightfall.
It was supposed to be a disaster of epic proportions in the making.
Despite the looming danger, only about 50 percent of Space Coast residents on the vulnerable barrier-islands obeyed the mandatory evacuation order, said John Scott, Brevard County emergency management operations coordinator.
“Too many people didn’t leave. And those that did leave learned the wrong lesson. We had a lot of folks — a lot of folks — who left and talked about the inconvenience the evacuation was,” Scott said during a “lessons learned” workshop last week at the Governor’s Hurricane Conference in West Palm Beach.
“Apparently, what they really wanted to come back to was just devastation,” Scott said, drawing laughter and nodding heads from the crowd of emergency officials from across Florida.
“They would have felt better if that had happened. We thought it was a complete win, but no. ‘Very inconvenient.’ So that’s a message we have to continue to combat. That’s what we want to happen: Come back, everything’s OK. You’re still alive,” he said.
The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season starts Thursday and lasts through Nov. 30. Those dates are merely guidelines: Tropical Storm Arlene briefly swirled to life last month far offshore as a rare April tropical cyclone.
Matthew was the first Category 5 storm to form in the Atlantic since Felix in 2007, said Phil Klotzbach, a Colorado State University hurricane forecaster. The hurricane was also the longest-lived Category 4-5 Atlantic hurricane on record during the month of October.
Matthew brushed Florida’s East Coast as a Category 3 storm, then made landfall in South Carolina as a weaker Category 1 storm. The hurricane was blamed for 38 deaths in the U.S. and $10 billion in wind and water damages.
Brevard’s barrier-island evacuation order was issued about 28 hours before Matthew struck, and officials opened eight general-population shelters, four special-needs shelters, and three pet-friendly shelters.
Among the lessons learned by Brevard emergency managers before, during and after Matthew:
• While the storm was raging, 911 calls spiked from barrier-island residents who had ignored the evacuation order — and they expected assistance.
• Demand for shelters was lower than projected — but occupancy maxed out at the pet-friendly shelters.
• A number of special-needs residents registered to stay in shelters at the last minute — but then stayed home anyway.
“What they often said was, ‘We wanted to be on the list just in case.’ We had a Cat 4. Just in case what?” Scott asked during the workshop, drawing more laughs.
Matthew highlighted other significant “lessons learned” across the Space Coast.
Brevard’s EOC shows its age
Power failures, sewage backups and overcrowding plagued Brevard County’s emergency operations center in Rockledge.
“Our EOC is 50 years old, with the plumbing, electrical and technological issues that you might imagine. A 10,000-square-foot building with about a 3,500-square-foot EOC floor, 260 people, two shifts’ work (resulted) in tight spaces and little sleep,” Kimberly Prosser, Brevard emergency management director, said during a speech at the Governor’s Hurricane Conference.
“Add in a 15- to 20-minute generator failure, loss of air conditioning for 12 hours, the backed-up sewer system in the ladies’ room, and a damaged tower antenna that prevented use of the front door for several days. That’s the reality we were living in,” said Prosser, who displayed PowerPoint slides of life within the EOC during Matthew.
Last year, Gov. Rick Scott vetoed $3 million in the state budget designated to go toward a Brevard EOC. This year, legislators earmarked $1.5 million. Scott has not yet released his veto list.
In December, the Brevard School Board approved a 99-year lease for future use as the county’s EOC site on 5 acres of vacant district-owned land west of Huntington Lane in Rockledge.
— Dave Berman and Rick Neale, FLORIDA TODAY
Beachside water shut-off sparks confusion
When Matthew was rolling up toward Brevard, water utility managers proactively shut off the water to all barrier islands. The decision caught beachside firefighters off guard.
A lack of pressure at local hydrants hamstrung efforts to douse the flames from an electrical fire that razed a Satellite Beach home.
Before the storm struck, Melbourne officials closed the valves to the beaches to protect the city’s larger system, which serves about 150,000 people across Central Brevard.
Melbourne’s utility system maintains 2 million gallons of water storage on the barrier island.
According to Melbourne officials, a switch that powered the storage tank’s pumps went out — and the backup generator failed to connect with them — hampering the firefighters’ efforts.
“We have since repaired the switch and are currently in the process of replacing the … generator and electrical service at that pump station,” Cheryl Mall, city spokeswoman, said in an email.
During her Governor’s Hurricane Conference speech, Prosser said officials will better communicate future decisions to shut off beachside water.
“The decision was made to isolate the barrier islands from the rest of the system, which was a proactive choice, but the public and partners did not have a full understanding of those actions and the reasoning behind the decision. That will be made more clear going forward,” Prosser said.
— Rick Neale and James Dean, FLORIDA TODAY
Lagoon may suffer more algae blooms
Mathew clearly had an impact on the Indian River Lagoon. Short-term, biologists believe the storm helped break up excess algae and flush out the struggling Indian River Lagoon. But over the long-term, Matthew unleashed more fodder for fish-killing algae.
“In the past, some major rainfall events, like hurricanes or tropical storms, seem to have moved so much water through the lagoon that they ‘reset’ conditions rather than causing a detrimental pulse in nutrient loads and subsequent phytoplankton bloom,” said Charles Jacoby, supervising environmental scientist with the St. Johns River Water Management District.
“But the storm also delivered from the watershed’s farms, lawns and septic tanks pulses of nitrogen and phosphorus that in the longer term can fuel harmful algae blooms,” Jacoby said.
Matthew’s last-minute turn away from Central Florida resulted in rainfall ranging from only about 2 to 4 inches within most of the lagoon region, sparing the estuary runoff extremes.
Any deluge of rain that raises lagoon levels and generates winds that push the water south to Sebastian Inlet can flush out algae and pollution, experts say. But if a storm’s rains carry enough organic matter, and wind forces water in other directions than toward an inlet, that means more muck buildup and algae blooms.
— Jim Waymer, FLORIDA TODAY
Pet-friendly shelters in high demand
“You have pet-friendly shelters? Spoiler alert: They’re going to be popular,” John Scott, Brevard County emergency management operations coordinator, said during a Governor’s Hurricane Conference workshop.
Bayside High in Palm Bay opened as an additional pet-friendly shelter because demand was so high at the county’s existing pet shelters in Port St. John, Viera and Palm Bay.
All told, Brevard pet-friendly shelters housed 933 human evacuees and 463 pets during Matthew, officials reported.
“We went through our animal-services trailer of pet supplies. We went through the state’s animal-services pet supplies. We had the humane society bring us additional stuff. And we still didn’t have enough,” Scott said.
“We still had folks who didn’t bring crates, who didn’t have ways to clean up after their animals, even though we tell them to,” he said.
“So, lesson learned: Tile floor in all your pet-friendly shelters. Tile floor is very helpful,” he said.
—Rick Neale, FLORIDA TODAY
KSC socked with $160M in damages
Kennedy Space Center’s two launch pads will be more vulnerable if another major storm targets the spaceport in the next hurricane season or two.
Hurricane Matthew destroyed several miles of dunes fronting pads 39A and 39B, part of KSC’s estimated $160 million in damages from the storm.
That’s a bigger hit than when two hurricanes blew through in 2004, ripping panels off the 525-foot Vehicle Assembly Building and causing $125 million in damage.
This time, major flight processing facilities like the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building, or VAB, came through OK, but damage to roofs, siding, trailers and other structures was widespread.
The worst luck: water intrusion through a VAB utility annex roof knocked out air conditioning to much of Launch Complex 39. After a temporary fix, a full replacement is expected to cost about $40 million and perhaps take two years.
KSC received $75 million for Matthew repairs. The emergency funds didn’t include roughly $30 million to build 3.5 miles of dunes and $25 million sought to harden facilities against future storms (both included in the $160 million damage estimate).
Overall, KSC felt well-prepared for Matthew, enabling the center to re-open the Tuesday following the Friday storm.
“Our biggest lesson learned was that the preparation activities we go through, and the scenarios on hurricane preparedness and response, really paid off,” said Dan Tweed, a deputy director for Spaceport Integration and Services at KSC. “We were ready for it.”
Beyond KSC, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Patrick Air Force Base sustained another $50 million in damage, according to the 45th Space Wing.
“We’re ready for this year’s hurricane season,” said Wing commander Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith.
— James Dean, FLORIDA TODAY