‘The comeback is bigger than the setback’: Fla. firefighters forge ahead after Hurricane Ian
Fort Myers Beach Fire Chief Ronald Martin details the department’s planning, rescue and recovery efforts in the wake of disaster
There are events that rattle the fabric of our communities and leave lasting imprints on our psyche. For communities along the southwest Florida coast, Hurricane Ian is one such event.
On Sept. 28, 2022, at 3:05 p.m., Hurricane Ian made landfall at Cayo Costa, a barrier island 10 miles to the northwest of another barrier island, Fort Myers Beach. The strand of Fort Myers Beach was ravaged by the southern eye wall winds of 150 mph – just shy of Category 5 strength. Cayo Costa, as well as the islands of Sanibel and Captiva (located between Cayo Costa and Fort Myers Beach), were all engulfed by the eye of the storm.
To gain some local perspective, I spoke with Fort Myers Beach Fire Chief Ronald Martin, whose island-based department was within 10 miles of Ian’s landfall. Three weeks after Ian struck the area – the bridge to the island having just reopened – we met at the Fort Myers Beach Fire Department (FMBFD) temporary headquarters located about a mile inland. Wind and water had damaged their headquarters and other government facilities on the island. Chief Martin gave me the lay of the land, while bustling between press conferences and meetings with local officials.
Fort Myers Beach FD response profile
The FMBFD covers a little over 6 square miles of land response territory, with the surrounding busy nautical areas also part of its responsibility. The department has 64 full-time employees, including 45 line firefighters on three shifts working out of three firehouses (north, central, south), and provides both firefighting and ALS transport service.
The full-time-resident population of the island is approximately 8,700, with that number swelling to 45,000 residents during with the winter “snowbird” months. In addition, over 3 million vacationers and others visit the area annually.
Chief Martin has 30 years of fire service experience, over 20 with FMBFD. He marked his one-year anniversary as Fort Myers Beach fire chief just 5 days prior to Ian’s landfall.
From a historical perspective, nearby Cayo Costa is no stranger to direct impacts from Category 4 storms – the most recent being Hurricane Charley in 2004. Fort Myers Beach was impacted by Charley; however, Charley’s eye was significantly smaller and moving faster, which limited storm surge effects along the coast. You would need to look back 62 years to Hurricane Donna in 1960 to find a Category 4 storm that took a direct path through Fort Myers Beach with a similar storm surge seen during Ian.
Preplanning, preparation, evacuation and impact
Operating as part of Emergency Support Functions (ESF) 4 and 9 under the Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan (CEMP) of Lee County, the FMBFD, like most other island departments, is well-versed in storm planning and protocols.
As a matter of protocol, when a full evacuation of emergency personnel has been ordered, the FMBFD leaves an unstaffed reserve-status engine and medic transport unit at its Central Station 31. This is done to ensure some physical recovery-response-resources are immediately available for returning firefighters to use, under the premise that response apparatus will not be able to drive across damaged bridges connecting the island to the mainland. In that contingency, firefighters would be among the first to be brought back to the island by boat.
Island life and associated response planning are dynamically different than that of non-island departments. The FMBFD plan, in concert with the Lee County CEMP, calls for cessation of response and evacuation from south to north based upon sustained wind-speed:
|30 mph||South Station 30|
|35 mph||Central Station 31|
|40 mph||North Station 32|
Hurricane Ian was particularly tricky to track, as it was originally projected to strike the panhandle, then Tampa, then Sarasota. Ian ultimately made landfall south of these locations.
As is standard practice, mandatory evacuation orders were being given in locations to the north based on the 72-hour forecasting. However, the time-to-landfall kept shrinking due to the landfall projections sliding south. Thus, the final evacuation orders in Lee County came with less than the 72-hour notice. It is important to note that while businesses can be forced to close and all residents are ordered to evacuate, residents’ compliance is voluntary.
The last firefighters and paramedics left the island at about 5 a.m. on Sept. 28 – an eerie reality for those residents who chose to stay.
Some weather forecasters were concerned that Ian would make landfall and stall, potentially amplifying the impact of the storm surge. Fortunately, that did not occur, and the storm moved northeasterly at about 9 mph, entering the Atlantic Ocean near Port Canaveral about 19 hours after first striking Lee County. The storm ravaged communities along its entire path, remaining at hurricane strength across the state.
Ian ultimately dropped between 15 and 20 inches of rain across a wide swath of Florida. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) called Ian a 1,000-year rainfall event, and the Weather Service characterizes it as one of the strongest storms to ever strike Florida.
Florida’s Ground Zero
Chief Martin identified the first seven days post-landfall as some of the most difficult he has faced during his career. No access, little communications, and a backlog of response requests. The chief recalled the feeling of being “immediately overwhelmed” as the recovery efforts commenced.
Martin reflected on his training and credentialing through the Executive Fire Officer (EFO) program, specifically that the program exercises painted a very accurate picture. Indeed, this was his version of the EFO program’s “Capitol City Exercises,” presenting students as “immediately overwhelmed.”
Even three weeks later, it was easy for me to feel his helplessness amid the devastation that was Fort Myers Beach. Having visited both the Pentagon and New York City after 9/11, I can fully understand why many people have related their experience in this recovery effort to their version of Ground Zero.
Storm surge devastation
As had been planned, firefighters had to be transported back to the island by boat. They were nothing but shocked at what they found at Station 31. The reserve engine and medic unit that were left behind had been pushed into the side wall of the station by the storm surge. The station was all but destroyed.
While wind speed is the quantifiable benchmark used to rate hurricane strength, the reality is that most deaths attributed to hurricanes – historically 85% – have been the result of storm surge. Unfortunately, predicting storm surge is extremely tricky due to storm tracking/speed, tidal-timing, river/bay inlet proximity, along with other environmental factors. Further, the effects of storm surge are generally misunderstood by the public. What we do know from history: There is no worse place to be than the on-shore-landfall wind-flow side of the eye – in this case, exactly at Fort Myers Beach.
Once waters receded enough for the station to be evaluated, Chief Miller reported the waterline inside the station was about 6.5 feet high on the drywall. Add the 5-foot elevation for the foundation and 3-foot ground elevation, and the damage confirms a storm surge of at least 14 feet. This kind of documented storm surge is not unprecedented but is very rare to the U.S. coasts. Martin lamented that it is difficult for people to comprehend what 15 feet of storm surge looks like and its impact on a community.
Reflecting on the preparations for the hurricane, Martin shared a story from when he first came to the department: “The old-timers had been through many hurricanes. They told me I’d be able to hide from the wind, but you better run from the water.” Storm surge was certainly the killer here. Even with 150+ mph winds, water was the threat that Martin hopes everyone will remember.
Fort Myers rescue and recovery efforts
Every provider who has been through this kind of catastrophe knows the drill. Everything ramps up, everyone’s in high gear, and relief agencies become community staples – in this case the American Red Cross. No amount of planning, however, could prepare Chief Martin or his crews for what they would see when the recovery efforts began.
Firefighters began returning around 7 a.m. on Sept. 29. Chief Martin reflected: “Everything was gone. It reminded me of the pictures coming out of Ukraine. Large boats were thrown around into parking lots and roadways like sticks.” There was no electric service, no cell service, and no dry land.
No building on the island was left untouched. Martin noted that there was a stark difference between buildings constructed to modern hurricane standards and those of legacy construction. Of the few legacy structures that remain, it is likely little will be salvageable – some of the newer structures are “in that boat” as well.
Emergency calls received for Fort Myers Beach by the Lee County 911 Center were cataloged and prioritized for when conditions improved and the recovery began – more than 50 emergency calls had been received from the island after the cessation of response on Sept. 28.
During 11 days of official search and rescue efforts during the recovery phase, 14 fatalities were found in the Fort Myers Beach community, most if not all believed to be related to storm surge.
Firefighters helped remove 526 residents who stayed through the storm – some rescued out of attics and unstable structures, some had medical conditions, and some assisted out of high-rise buildings or simply assisted from a structure through the water to safety. The number of rescues conducted by firefighters suggests that approximately 7% of the island’s population did not evacuate.
Martin credited the coordinated efforts through Emergency Management for providing the resources needed to make it through the entire event. He specifically highlighted the early insertion of a Type 3 Incident Command Team that arrived from the Louisiana State Fire Marshal’s Office for the critical assistance provided to coordinate search and rescue efforts. He further credited all of his own personnel and the assisting organizations for their work. This includes the FDNY command team and the firefighters from Jacksonville, St. Johns and Collier County who were on site during my visit.
Responses to electric vehicle (EV) fires was tested during this event as well. We’ve heard the stories of EVs catching fire hours after a vehicle wreck, sometimes while on a tow truck or in the tow yard. In Fort Myers Beach, firefighters responded to fires in EVs that were not involved in wrecks, but rather were submerged in seawater. Water intrusion into the battery box can cause corrosion on the battery cells, which can cause a cell to fail, leading to a thermal runaway event. Patrick Durham covers this phenomenon here. The drying of salt in seawater amplifies the problem.
As the situation continues to unfold, the next wave of impact has been the environmental issues – mosquito breeding, well contamination and sewer system repairs. Further, the Gulf’s “red tide” – harmful algal blooms that can cause respiratory illness in humans – is now moving in. (While red tide has been a problem on the Gulf Coast in past years, it was not anticipated at this time, indicating that Ian’s turbulence could have driven its return.) The FMBFD will continue to help other response agencies deal with these issues and others that will arise as the recovery continues.
During this period of recovery, the town of Fort Myer Beach and the FMBFD have suspended fire inspection and permitting fees to speed up these processes and reduce the burden on those who have lost so much already. The State of Florida continues to have a significant presence and is providing both grant assistance and coordination of state and federal assistance.
Continued community support
While tending to their own needs and routine responses, Chief Martin and his troops have also been handing out tarps and food or helping the community wherever they can. Martin has been attending the daily storm operations meetings and assisting elected officials with press briefings and stakeholders’ meetings.
Further, the FMBFD union, IAFF Local 1826, is working to help the local Fort Myers Beach Elementary School collect books. The entire school has been decommissioned, all of the contents lost, and students and teachers have been reassigned to other area schools. The immediate need is for kindergarten to 5th grade class books. Anyone who may want to assist with this specific effort or others, can reach out via Volunteer Florida.
Chief Martin lauded the positive relationship with Local 1826 and its efforts to help not only the local firefighters recover but also the entire community. Martin added, “Tarps, drinking water, debris removal, or just a hug – recovery takes many forms.”
Firefighter and staff support
Every single member of the Fort Myers Beach Fire Department experienced some kind of property damage, with one employee’s apartment being destroyed. Once the state resources could be provided, Martin made sure all of his employees had the opportunity to get home and take care of their own families and properties.
Counseling, stress debriefing, therapy dogs and other resources have been made available to FMBFD members and staff dealing with this tragedy. There’s a long road to this recovery, plus an intricate web of local, state and federal resources that will work into the process. Unfortunately, in some cases, there will likely be no recovery, only memories.
Fort Myers Beach Station 31 was destroyed in the storm surge. Whether it will be replaced, plus when, where and how, is unclear at this time. Stations 30 and 32, while damaged, appear to be salvageable.
IAFF Local 1826 had a Hurricane Ian shirt commissioned, the bottom reading, “The Comeback Is Bigger than the Setback.”
As the community wades through these waters of comeback, the pace of the recovery process, especially when moving through the labyrinth of government agencies, will undoubtedly feel glacial to some, but this due diligence takes time and effort. It is critical that we take that time to learn from any mistakes of the past and confirm that the standards of the present help us protect our communities in the future.
No matter the type or scope of disaster, we must always take care of each other. That includes remembering the old-timers’ advice for the next hurricane: “You can hide from the wind, but you better run from the water.”