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‘We dodged a bullet’: Manatee sheriff holds last Irma briefing

Hurricane Irma impacts West Florida

Hurricane Irma made landfall in parts of West Florida, with strong winds and rain impacting many communities.
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Hurricane Irma made landfall in parts of West Florida, with strong winds and rain impacting many communities.

Manatee County Sheriff Rick Wells summed up the emergency management's final Hurricane Irma briefing with a simple but important message: “We dodged a bullet.”

Irma, now a tropical storm as it moves north, spared Bradenton and Manatee County from some of its worst impacts. But the city and county are still dealing with massive power outages, storm damage, road closures and storm damage. The area remains under a tropical storm wind warning. There is the potential for tropical-storm force winds of up to 39 miles per hour through the day Monday.

The mandatory curfew that went into effect Sunday at 3 p.m. was lifted earlier Monday. Wells said residents cooperated with the order and there were no issues or arrests.

Power remains out for more than half of Manatee County’s 184,900 Florida Power & Light’s customers. More than 23,000 Peace River Electric Cooperative customers were without power as of 10 a.m., according to the county.

LATEST UPDATE: Power is out for more than half of Manatee County

Several roads, including parts of State Road 64, are closed. SR 64 is closed from Verna Bethany to Duette due to downed power lines, according to the county. The county said it has a report of flooding on Rye Road. Wells urged caution for residents traveling in the county, and the sheriff’s office, via Twitter, asked drivers to remain off the roads unless “absolutely necessary.” Intersections without power should be tested as a four-way stop sign.

Tampa International Airport has no flights scheduled Monday, but most will resume Tuesday or Wednesday, the airport announced on Twitter.

Damage assessment will continue throughout the day and FEMA has declared the county as a natural disaster, opening the door for claims to begin.

“We were lucky, very fortunate,” said Emergency Management Chief Sherilyn Burris.

Officials caution everyone to remain patient in the days ahead as crews work to restore power and get fuel trucks into the county. In the meantime, some 20,000 residents return to their homes today from local shelters.

Commissioner Robin Disabatino thanked the school district for all they did to accommodate everyone.

“We were very fortunate to be spared,” she said.

The only known crime associated to the storm was a convenience store burglary which the sheriff's office is investigating.

Anna Maria Island

Anna Maria Island will contend with drinking water issues due to saltwater intrusion, but Wells said no significant damage was reported from the island. Bridges to Anna Maria Island remain closed, according to the Manatee Sheriff Twitter account.

The island is dealing with minor flooding in roadways and parking lots and plenty of debris. Tree branches and palm fronds littered nearly every stretch of road, though streets were manageable.

Low hanging and downed power lines were found on several roads and there was a snapped power pole near the Anna Maria City Pier.

The Pier itself was missing a large portion of its roof. The bright silver alarm light flashing from the edge of the Pier was visible from the partially submerged parking lot.

Dale Woodland, Anna Maria City commissioner, rode out the storm in his island home and was at the Pier Monday morning camera in hand trying to get a peek at the damage.

"On the north side you can see it, all the panels are gone. Obviously that's not going to be up in a while," Woodland said.

He pointed out damage on the Walk way as well.

Rain continued to shower the island Monday morning. Trees were still swaying under the winds whipping off the Gulf of Mexico.

Conditions

Earlier Monday, law enforcement officials began clearing the roads, and Manatee County and Tampa Bay have been downgraded to a tropical storm warning.

"We had one team of beach paramedics do a predawn assessment in West Bradenton," county spokesman Nicholas Azzara said.

Reports so far are "very good,” he said.

Another small first-in team went around to other parts of the county.

"There is very little damage around Manatee County,” Azzarra said.

Some downed power lines and downed trees were spotted. There were no signs of major flooding and most of the damage seen was what the county sees during a typical summer thunderstorm.

Signs of power on Anna Maria Island were observed at a distance, he said, but first responders did not go out onto the island.

Heavy winds and rain pounded Bradenton last night as the center of Hurricane Irma stayed to the east and moved north of the city, but reports early Monday indicated that Manatee County was spared the brunt of the storm’s wrath.

Forecast

Irma made landfall farther south than expected, sparing the Tampa Bay region some of the storm's harshest conditions like those seen near where the storm came ashore in Naples. At 2 a.m. Manatee and other parts of the area were getting lashed with hurricane-force winds as the storm moved north-northwest at 15 miles per hour, but by 5 a.m. residents woke up to calmer winds.

The storm had maximum sustained winds of 85 mph. By 8 a.m. Monday, it had sustained winds of 70 mph and was moving further inland, about 105 miles north of Tampa, with hurricane-force winds extending 60 miles form Irma’s center.

Forecasts show the storm moving up the western Florida Peninsula Monday morning and then into the southeastern U.S. Monday into Tuesday.

Irma came ashore in Florida for the second time earlier Sunday afternoon at Marco Island, as Hurricane forecasters warned of massive storm surge along the west coast of Florida as the storm continues to move north.

Earlier in the day, Irma crossed over the Florida Keys as a Category 4 hurricane, then dropped to a Category 3 storm. At 5 p.m., it was downgraded to a Category 2 storm.

Bays in the area have seen water recede so much that manatees were beached and boats were completely out of water and on land. In a tweet, the National Weather Service asked people to "Please refrain from going out into exposed seabeds where waters have drained away known as negative storm surge. Storm surge is #1 killer."

The large storm already knocked out power to more than 3 million people across the state and brought destructive winds and storm surge to towns and cities on both sides of the peninsula. Peace River Electric Company shut off all the power to its customers to protect its grid, leaving their 23,645 customers without power.

Curfew

The city of Venice was forced to shut down its water plant Sunday night after officials said there “appears there is a significant water main break within the system,” according to a post on the city's official Facebook page.

Employees will wait for the storm to pass before going out to find and fix the break, then water can be restored to the city, according to the post. The city will notify residents when water has been restored, then there will be a 48-hour boil notice in effect. Until then, there is no water to drink or even flush toilets with in Venice.

As conditions worsened in Bradenton Sunday, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office imposed a 24-hour curfew that began at 3 p.m. The curfew has been lifted.

As of 3:30 p.m Sunday, traffic was nowhere to be found on U.S. 41, a major Bradenton street, after the curfew took effect. Earlier, the Florida Highway Patrol warned motorists to stay off of Interstate 4, as water started to build.

Disaster relief

Florida Gov. Rick Scott said at a Sunday news conference that local, state and federal officials were prepared to respond once the storm passes. The governor left Tallahassee Sunday afternoon for Pensacola, the only major Florida city out of Irma’s path and where the airport is still open.

Aides said the governor would spend the night in Pensacola and will fly from that city to the Keys and other areas most heavily damaged from the hurricane.

President Donald Trump and his Cabinet received an update Sunday afternoon on the federal response to Hurricane Irma from Department of Homeland Security officials, including Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Brock Long. The White House said Trump is in touch with authorities from states who will be affected by Irma over the next several days, as well as those U.S. territories that have already been touched by the storm.

“It's all about coordination,” Trump said, praising the Coast Guard and FEMA for their storm efforts. “I think we're really well coordinated, as well as you could possibly be.”

The president, who owns the Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, told reporters he’d be “going to Florida very soon.”

The White House said Trump approved a Florida disaster declaration that will make federal aid available to people in the counties of Charlotte, Collier, Hillsborough, Lee, Manatee, Miami-Dade, Monroe, Pinellas, and Sarasota. Residents and business owners who had property damaged in those counties can apply for assistance by registering online at http://www.DisasterAssistance.gov or by calling 1-800-621-FEMA(3362) or 1-800-462-7585 (TTY) for the hearing and speech impaired.

The House of Representatives cancelled votes planned for Monday due to anticipated absences of many members. None of the votes was to involve major legislation. Voting is expected to resume Tuesday at 6:30 p.m.

Flooding

Heavy rains started in Bradenton around 9 a.m. on Sunday, and around 11 a.m. stronger wind gusts formed in the Bayshore area near the marina. Manatees were spotted swimming through the low tide at Sarasota Bay.

The Manatee is expected to rise above flood stage Monday night, according to the National Weather Service in Tampa. The river was at 37 feet Sunday morning and is expected to reach 42.2 feet by Tuesday morning. Flood stage is at 41 feet.

Shelters

Lakewood Ranch High School was designated as the shelter of last resort, according to county officials. It opened at 9 a.m. Sunday as many other shelters were already at capacity.

At least 25,000 people in Manatee County have taken shelter in a public school. Williams and Gene Witt elementary schools are the other shelters with the most capacity still available. As of 4:14 p.m., all school shelters were in lockdown due to 45 MPH winds.

At 7:15 p.m., in the middle of a showing of A Bug’s Life at Prine shelter, the power went out due to a downed pole outside the building. Hallways were dark until an emergency generator returned some power, although not the air conditioning.

As of 6 p.m. Saturday, all access to Anna Maria Island was cut off, as the entire island was included in the mandatory evacuation of Zone A, home to 82,208 people. There was also a voluntary evacuation issued for Zone B, home to 101,926 people. Water was shut off to the island before Sunday morning.

The Sunshine Skyway Bridge was shut down Saturday night and will remain closed through the duration of the storm.

Those who remained on Anna Maria Island or other low lying areas and mobile homes will be on their own until winds drop below 45 mph on Monday. Wells, the sheriff, said authorities know where some of those residents are, and they are prepared to save people from those areas.

Sarasota schools will be closed Monday and Tuesday.

Hospitals

The Lakewood Ranch Medical Center remained fully operational as of Sunday morning, the waiting room quiet as rain and wind started pelting the building.

Lisa Kirkland, director of marketing, said it was important for people to know the hospital is not a designated shelter, and resources needed to be reserved for the patients. The hospital is not sheltering family members of patients.

Kirkland declined to comment on possible issues such as loss of power, hospital staffing and patient capacity. She also declined to comment on the reported 206 patients who were relocated to Lakewood Ranch Medical Center from Manatee Memorial Hospital.

Those concerned about their loved ones can call the main hospital line at 941-782-2100.

History

Tampa Bay has not been struck by a major hurricane since October 1921, when the population was about 10,000, said hurricane center spokesman Dennis Feltgen. About 4 million people now live in the low-lying area.

The Tampa Bay Hurricane of 1921, also known as the Tarpon Springs Hurricane, came in as Category 3 storm, killed eight people and caused $10 million in damages, in 1921 dollars.

Along the Gulf Coast, forecasters warned that flooding from storm surge could be catastrophic, with water rising as high as 15 feet from Cape Sable to Captiva. The storm surge from Ana Maria Island to Clearwater Beach, including Tampa Bay, could be as high as 8 feet, the NHC said.

"For the first time many are going to find water coming through their homes from eight to 10 feet," Wells said. "That's not something they're use to and I believe that they feel they can ride this out because of that. It's never gotten that bad."

Mark Young: 941-745-7041, @urbanmark2014

Jessica De Leon: 941-745-7049, @JDeLeon1012

Bradenton Herald reporters Richard Dymond, Mark Young, Sarah Nealeigh, Hannah Morse, Jason Dill and McClatchy DC reporters Kate Irby and Lesley Clark contributed reporting from Bradenton. Miami Herald reporter Kristen M. Clark and Steve Bousquet of the Times/Herald contributed reporting from Tallahassee. Brian Murphy, Stuart Leavenworth, Teresa Welsh, Franco Ordonez, David Lightman and Jared Gilmour contributed from Washington.

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