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Cape Coral is Ready for the Challenge

By CJ HADDAD - | May 30, 2024

Continuing to take lessons learned from Hurricane Ian that blew through Southwest Florida in 2022, the city of Cape Coral and its Emergency Management Division is again ready to take on whatever challenges may come this season. 

At the top of the list this year for city officials is ensuring that pertinent information and updates should a major weather event take place is available to residents. As learned during Ian and other storms such as Irma in 2017, the use of cell phones and internet may be touchy or unavailable all together for prolonged periods. Cape Coral Emergency Management Division Manager Alvin Henderson said a more old- school approach can be taken to inform Cape residents on the most up-to-date happenings and need-to-know information. 

“We still have lessons learned, if you will, from Ian,” Henderson said. “We’re stressing that our police station and fire stations are information hubs for the public during a large-scale event like Hurricane Ian was. Where if means of communication are majorly disrupted, that we’ll have information stations set up at all fire stations and the PD headquarters.”

These hubs will also include charging stations for devices to go along with information on how the city is recovering from whatever damage it has incurred. 

“One of the major areas we’re pushing hard on is to make sure that we like to use technology, but also we have to have the redundancy of what I call ‘old school’ like the town crier.”

So, how does the city prepare each year for hurricane season? Henderson said the Cape invests a lot of resources and time into preparedness efforts throughout various city departments. 

“We try to make sure we have operations plans we work on to make sure we’re providing the services we can to the community, and try to lessen any type of impact that would prevent us from offering those services,” Henderson said. 

The city has its own emergency operations plan and, after each year and/or storm, follows up to find best practices and ways to improve. 

“Our goal is to quickly recover from an incident, and obviously try to lessen its impact on the community through our preparedness efforts,” Henderson said. “We have a lot of public outreach we do. We have a business preparedness guide and hurricane guide that is for the general public.”

Partnerships with entities in Lee County, the state, and even nationally are vital in each year’s hurricane season. 

“We always say in emergency management that all events, in essence, start local and end local,” Henderson said. “We look a lot at our emergency operations plans that we have to respond to incidents here locally, but also exercise open lines of community to our counterparts in Lee County and the emergency management staff there. They work in concert, as we do, with state resources made available to us through the Floral Division of Emergency Management. And then that connects us up to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.”

Henderson said these partnerships and an all-hands-on-deck approach is vital to keeping residents safe if a major weather event is to impact the region. 

The city works around the clock to secure contracts with different entities to assist in meeting needs or resources to aid in the mitigation of recovery. 

As for where emergency personnel are stationed during an impending weather event, it all takes place at the city’s Emergency Operations Center at the fire department headquarters near City Hall. 

Henderson said while the EOC is a physical space for personnel to gather and bring subject matter experts into a single location, there is also a virtual option so they can interface with experts throughout the United States and internationally. 

“It’s more than just city departments coming together,” Henderson said. “We have stakeholders from the community. We have the business community that is represented here. Utilities are represented here. We have enhanced communication going in and out  to these organizations as we understand what the local impact is to us, and quickly assess that impact and what’s needed to try and start restoring critical programs and services to our community.”

Henderson said city employees tasked with hurricane season prep are always looking to get better and improve year-to-year. From lessons learned, to programs, conferences, and exercises city staff take part in outside of the city, best practices are always being sought after. 

“Are there new best practices or recommendations that we can bring back and employ them here within the city to enhance our operations for us to become even more effective?” Henderson said. “It’s something we work really hard at year-round so that as we consistently and constantly update our programs here, we’re looking at the best way of how we can lessen the impact on the community, and with the impacts that we see, how can we be more efficient to mitigate that event and become more resilient so we’re less apt to have that same level of impact on that type of incident in the future.”

No matter what forecasters say prior to the start of the hurricane season, it only takes one major storm to change an entire region or community. The city’s message to residents heading into this year’s season after a slow 2023, is to be prepared, be informed, be ready, and don’t panic.

“Be ready to exercise your family emergency plan, so that if you’re in an evacuation zone and it’s called for, you have that plan ready to go further inland for example — to friends or family that are outside that evacuation zone,” Henderson said. “You don’t have to go out of state, just out of that evacuation zone.”

Henderson said it’s important to understand what officials are looking at when calling for an evacuation for specific areas of the county or city. 

“We hide from the wind and run from the water,” he said. “We want to make sure you’re getting out of harm’s way.”

Residents should be aware that the city curtails its emergency services to residents when sustained winds reach 45 mph or greater, as it is no longer safe conditions for equipment and personnel. 

“That’s not just an arbitrary number for us, that is for the operational success of our personnel going out into winds that are 45 miles-per-hour sustained, which typically will actually push or roll over fire apparatus and ambulances and other public safety equipment. It’s not a safe environment to operate it.

“There could be a period of time where we’re not able to actively respond. If you don’t follow that recommendation to evacuate, you’re putting yourself and your family at-risk, but also precluding us from potentially being able to respond during a certain time frame as well.”

Henderson also reminds residents that heading to a hurricane shelter (just one in Cape Coral at Island Coast High School) is a last resort, and should not be a primary plan in the case of an evacuation call. 

“We call it a lifeboat, not a cruise ship,” he said. “You’re better off to have a plan in place where you’re going to family or friends outside the evacuation zone to ride that storm out.”

With many new residents joining the Cape Coral community each and every year, it’s often time a first experience for a neighbor. Henderson urged seasoned residents to lend a hand and help out newcomers. 

“We like to always stress the fact that we should have neighbors helping neighbors,” he said. “Tenured community members should take in new community members, have an opportunity to meet them, and also talk about things that they need to be thinking about, or ways they can help a new member of the community understand the risks and how to be prepared or respond to an incident.”