on the frontline of hurricane irma

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

on the frontline of hurricane irma:

commissioner ricky arriola shares his reflections

Commissioner Ricky Arriola had a view of Hurricane Irma that few on the Beach had – preparing for the storm, riding it out at City Hall, and then getting out on the streets for the recovery. He shared his reflections with RE:MiamiBeach.
 
Overall, he told us, “It was a great example of civic leadership, crisis management, and preparing ourselves for disaster management. I was really proud of the team … I think it’s A’s across the board if I had to grade everybody, from our residents to our businesses and certainly city government.”

Pre-Irma
“Everybody took this very seriously. Residents followed evacuation orders. It was orderly. There wasn’t any confusion,” he said. “People took this seriously and left with plenty of time” which ensured public safety but also “put the city in a better position to withstand and be ready for the recovery efforts following the storm.”
 
“I think everybody did a great job, particularly the residents. If you drove around, businesses were boarded up. Homes were boarded up. People removed debris that could be projectiles. The minority of folks who stayed made the best-informed decision they could. They prepared. They got provisions.”
 
Regarding the preparation, he said, “In the future I hope this will be repeated because all we have to do is look at what happened in the Florida Keys or Houston to see how serious these storms can be. And if people don’t evacuate when there is direct landfall, the loss of human life can be pretty severe.”
  Commissioner Ricky Arriola (center) with Miami Beach Fire Department personnel


Riding it out

During the storm, Arriola joined a handful of others who spent the night at City Hall, then moved over to Mt. Sinai where the City’s emergency operations center was located. “Again, 'A plus' for preparedness and communication from our emergency response team,” he said.
 
Police officers and fire rescue department personnel were situated on Miami Beach and across the Bay at Marlins Stadium. Having equipment out of harm’s way and teams in two places allowed the City to move more effectively into the recovery phase. “Communication was very good,” he said. “We had people in the right locations. Because the storm was not a Cat 5, our communication equipment worked. Cell coverage was very reliable. We didn’t lose power because we had a generator.”
 
“One of the lessons from this storm was how useful social media was. From people in their homes – or even if they were out of state – publishing real-time what we were experiencing, we really knew at all times what was happening,” he said. “When national media is covering you, they’re focusing on Miami as a general area. In Miami Beach you have a heightened concern about Miami Beach. What is happening in another part of town is not the same experience as you’re having … and that’s where I thought social media was useful in filling the gaps.” When the storm track started moving away from Miami Beach, he said those social media accounts became even more important. National media coverage shifted with the storm but because it was so large, even as it was moving up the West coast, Miami Beach was experiencing hurricane conditions. “We were still experiencing the storm here and so just watching CNN was not as useful once the storm had shifted for informing us of what was going on and so, again, I think social media was something very useful.” Indeed, the only way for people to get news on their particular neighborhood was through texts or social media posts from neighbors or friends.
 
 

After Irma
As the storm was finally leaving the Beach, night was falling so Arriola joined other City officials and first responders in doing an initial survey.
 
“We drove around and got a feel for what we were going to be looking at the next day, trees down on major arteries, downed power lines. We knew where the trouble spots were, but we also knew that there was no real structural damage to any of our infrastructure. No buildings had any significant damage. We didn’t experience a lot of significant flooding so we knew we were in pretty good shape and if we came back and pretty aggressively treated the streets we could be up and running pretty quickly.”
 
On closing the City’s causeways: “We knew Monday that we were not going to allow residents to come back quickly to give ourselves the opportunity to come back on Monday and clear the roads. The City did not have traffic lights. Our police were already stretched and we couldn’t be putting them at every traffic stop. If traffic were to come back to the Beach it would quickly get congested and prevent the recovery vehicles from reaching the downed trees and the downed power lines and further delaying the recovery efforts.”
 
He said he thinks the decision to keep residents from coming back was “generally understood”. With the streets mostly empty, a lot of work was done on Monday, which meant, he said, “We were back open for everyone to come home safely on Tuesday.” The streets are now clear and for the most part, the City is waiting for FPL to fully restore power and for cable and internet access in all neighborhoods. “But 72 hours after the storm passed we’re very far toward full recovery,” he remarked. “Businesses are back open. Grocery stores are open. Gas stations are fueled. Next week school will reopen. The curfew keeps getting shortened.”
 
He marveled at how well it all went from a public safety perspective. “We checked in on everybody – our seniors, those we evacuated, those with special needs. I don’t think we had any fatalities. No serious injuries. I was at Mt. Sinai during the storm and I think we only had one admission during those 24 hours, a minor cardiac event. We really didn’t have any injuries or any severe health related issues 24 hours after the storm hit. I think when you judge it that way it was a big success.”
 
The City has raised roads and installed new stormwater pumps and drainage in a few areas to deal with sea level rise. Though City officials have emphasized the pumps are not designed to prevent flooding during severe weather events like hurricanes but rather drain the City faster, Arriola said they were a benefit during Irma. “By all accounts we didn’t have flooding issues. Some neighborhoods that didn’t have pumps installed, there was some ponding but flooding was not an issue. There was no property damage because of flooding. The area around Sunset Harbour was bone dry the entire time. I saw it for myself and I spoke to many businesses who were in Sunset Harbour and they said it was bone dry the entire time, so the pumps worked and the investment we’ve been making in our roads definitely helped because we didn’t have the flooding that downtown Miami and other parts of Miami had.”
 
 

Lessons learned
“I think we have to look at our power grid. I think the thing that is lingering for many people from the storm is the lack of power and how long it’s taken to come back online. We have to find better ways to make sure the service disruption is as short as possible and be sure we have backup plans… burying power lines, hardening our infrastructure, proactively clearing trees that might fall on power lines, backup generators and portable air conditioners that can serve in public facilities where people can go who don’t have power and folks who really need air conditioning can get it.”
 
“I will say one of the things that was done on the fly – and Mayor Levine deserves the credit for it – was negotiating with our hotels and getting $99 rates for residents who lack power so they can have a place to stay. It’s a win-win because not only do residents have options on where to go at a reasonable rate but it’s also a win for the hotels whose business suffered during the hurricane … certainly no one’s rushing to come back to Miami Beach this week. So the hotels benefit as well.” He described the program as “an innovation of Mayor Levine’s” that the City would keep in its playbook going forward
 
Finally, Arriola, like many of us, is still processing the impact of the storm. “For me, sort of this existential possibility of total destruction was sobering and it’s still on my mind. I’m not recovered from it. I’m thrilled that we dodged a bullet but I don’t like the fact that we had to rely on luck to be in a successful situation. I’d much rather rely on our skill and preparation than luck,” he reflected. “This would have been a different story if the storm had headed 100 miles east. Even with the best planning and preparation, we would have been in a very different scenario and it’s not lost on me that we got lucky and that’s concerning. It’s sobering when you think about it. You start thinking about ‘Is this truly a one in a hundred year storm?’ or ‘Is this the new normal?’ and I don’t know the answer to that. You had Harvey and then Irma. And Wilma and Katrina aren’t that long ago.”
 
 
Photos: Ricky Arriola
 

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