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Key Biscayne VIllage Manager Steve Williamson and Fire Chief Eric Lang in January crossed the Florida peninsula to learn the hard lessons of Hurricane Ian.

The Category 5 hurricane rapidly intensified off the coast and made landfall in Lee County. Residents on the barrier islands of Sanibel and North Fort Myers beach were trapped as record storm surge rose as high as two stories. It killed 150 Floridians.

Lee County officials were criticized for calling for an evacuation when the effects of the storm were already being felt.

“We took a number of lessons away from that incident, Hurricane Ian, and probably the big change is how we issue our advisories on evacuations when it comes to threatening storms,” Lang said. 

Hurricane Ian showed what such a storm can do to a barrier island like Key Biscayne, the most dense square mile in all of the state and home to 15,000 residents with one way out: the Rickenbacker Causeway, which is often congested on a sunny day.

Evacuating Key Biscayne with an approaching hurricane is a matter of deft precision for Village officials.

“We can’t wait for the county,” Williamson said. “The roads would be totally jammed up and we are going to have a string of vehicles. We have to make the call 18 hours in advance of the county.”

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Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said at her news conference on hurricane preparedness: “Don’t try to second guess us, we have all the expertise available to us. And when we say it’s time to evacuate, it’s time to evacuate.”

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Hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association is forecasting an upward range of 17 total named storms with nine becoming hurricanes and up to four major hurricanes. 

West Heather Drive flooding during Hurricane Ian, Tuesday, Sept. 27. 2020. (KBI Photo/Luis de la Cruz)

Some news outlets may be placing too much emphasis on El Niño, a cyclical changing of ocean conditions in the central Pacific Ocean that tends to suppress hurricane formation. El Niño increases wind shear, which is kind of like kryptonite to tropical storm formation

But one forecaster says that this season is unusual because Atlantic Ocean waters are at record warm temperatures.

“It’s definitely not a slam dunk forecast this year, there’s a lot of uncertainty because those two predictors have never been more diametrically opposed going into a season,”: said Ryan Truchelut, president and chief meteorologist for Tallahassee-based Weather Tiger.

The rapid intensification of modern hurricanes like Ian proves tricky for the officials charged with keeping the public safe.

“That’s certainly something that’s a big, big risk for populated areas, because they’re tough to forecast. They catch people off guard,” he said. “People go to bed with something as category two and they wake and it’s four and they’re caught.”

How vulnerable is Key Biscayne? It is in Zone A, meaning that all it takes is a threat of a Category 1 hurricane for evacuation to start. More than 80 percent of deaths attributed to Ian occurred in Zone A with the average age of the victim being 70.

“Although there is a worry with wind damage, we’re very concerned with the storm surge,” said Joe Lopez, Miami-Dade Emergency Operations Manager when asked about Key Biscayne.

Residents, Lang said, must be sure they are signed up for the Village Information Network, which will send text alerts to cell phones. (Click here to sign up now).

The elderly and the disabled who may not be able to get off the island easily are encouraged to sign up for Miami-Dade County’s emergency management and assistance program. (Click here to sign up now)

Williamson said the Village plans on precision when using the tiered evacuation alerts – recommendation, advisory and order – to move most of the residents off the island to avoid a standstill on the Rickenbacker.

“Timing is tough,” Williamson said. 

Word of warning: Williamson said he will move officials and emergency personnel off the island with a strong hurricane approaching – meaning those residents who stay will be on their own. “If you are still alive afterwards, we will come back for you,” he said.

Residents are told to have a plan where they will go in case of evacuation: friends, relatives, hotel or shelter. The last time Key Biscayne was evacuated was in 2017 for Hurricane Irma, Lang said.

“The big difference since 2017 is there’s more people in South Florida now. There’s more people on the roads,” Lang said. “We want people to get out and get out early and not get caught up in traffic.”

Miami-Dade Commission Chairman Oliver G. Gilbert III said Floridians, in these divisive times, need to prepare for one other thing this hurricane season: their hearts.

“We are used to being there for each other in those moments,” he said. “We might have our differences, but not in times like this.”

John Pacenti

JOHN PACENTI is a correspondent of the Key Biscayne Independent. John has worked for The Associated Press, the Palm Beach Post, Daily Business Review, and WPTV-TV.

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JOHN PACENTI is a correspondent of the Key Biscayne Independent. John has worked for The Associated Press, the Palm Beach Post, Daily Business Review, and WPTV-TV.