When Hurricane Matthew threatened South Florida last October, it gave the region a frighteningly realistic dress rehearsal for the hurricane season that begins Thursday.
Emergency operations centers cranked into action. Shelters opened, brigades of electrical workers went into the field and thousands of government workers set aside their usual jobs to attend to their hurricane battle stations.
The preparations exposed flaws, particularly in managing shelters. There were water shortages, long lines and an insufficient number of Red Cross volunteers. But the storm also showed that the billions spent hardening the electrical grid paid off, as Florida Power & Light was able to restore power much more quickly than in the past.
Officials say the brush with Matthew left South Florida in a stronger position to face whatever challenges come with the new season.
“Matthew was probably one of the best exercises we could have had, in terms of all the preparatory steps we had to take,” said Curtis Sommerhoff, Miami-Dade County’s emergency management director. “It gave us the ability to shake a little bit of the rust off.’’
Hurricane season runs through Nov. 30, with the peak coming in mid-August through September. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts this year’s season will be more active than usual, with five to nine hurricanes, of which two to four will be Category 3 or above, with winds of at least 111 mph.
Hurricane Matthew, which briefly reached catastrophic Category 5 strength, approached South Florida in early October, moving parallel to the coast until it made landfall Oct. 8 in South Carolina. The last hurricane to hit South Florida was Wilma, in 2005.
As Matthew loomed over the region, Palm Beach County was expected to get the worst of it. Officials opened 15 shelters and announced a voluntary evacuation of the coast.
Hardly anyone evacuated. The next day, the county issued a mandatory evacuation, and many coastal residents complied. Such a gradual approach is unlikely to be repeated.
“We originally said something like ‘We strongly encourage evacuations,’” said Bill Johnson, Palm Beach County’s emergency management director. “That could place a bit of doubt. In the future we’re going to be very clear about what we mean about evacuations. I don’t think we’re going to try to mess with voluntary versus mandatory. We’re just going to say ‘Evacuate, period.’”
Johnson said the county had doubled its number of shelters, but he said the Red Cross was unable to fully staff them. The county then quickly trained staffers to step in. Johnson said the Red Cross will retain a role in staffing shelters, but it will be a diminished one, supplemented with county workers.
Roberto Baltodano, spokesman for the American Red Cross – South Florida Region, denied there had been a staffing failure.
“The Red Cross opened and staffed every shelter requested by Palm Beach,” he said.
Another problem appeared at Palm Beach County’s pet-friendly shelter, which quickly got overcrowded — with people. The county requires that family members stay at the shelter with their pets, so each puppy might be accompanied by a family of four. Johnson said this year an additional shelter will be designated pet-friendly.
Still, Johnson said, “We did well in Matthew overall. In spite of the fact that it’s been a decade-long drought, I believe that for the most part our activities went according to plan.’
The Red Cross fully staffed shelters in Broward and Miami-Dade counties during Matthew, but this season the organization said it can staff only half of Broward’s 14 shelters, said county emergency management director Miguel Ascarrunz.
Ten Broward shelters were opened during Matthew and took in more than 2,000 people, according to the county’s report on its response, which listed several problems.
Long lines stretched outside shelters, with evacuees waiting up to two hours as police officers conducted background checks. Water wasn’t immediately available at some shelters. All three homeless assistance centers and the Broward Addiction Recovery Center evacuated 1,100 people by bus to Arthur Ashe Middle School in Fort Lauderdale and Coral Glades High School in Coral Springs, overwhelming them.
Still, shelter staff did “a remarkable job in a short amount of time,” according to the county’s report.
Ascarrunz said Broward has taken steps to deal with problems exposed by Matthew, including meeting with the Broward Sheriff’s Office to avoid to the background-check bottleneck and training 150 county workers to run the shelters.
“We’ve made good progress,” he said.
For Florida Power & Light Co. and its customers, the lesson from Matthew was clear: The investment of nearly $3 billion to harden the grid since the debacle of Hurricane Wilma has paid off.
Although Matthew knocked out power for about 2 million FPL customers, the company restored service to nearly 99 percent within two days. This was a big improvement over the aftermath of Wilma in 2005, when thousands of customers lost power for more than a week, with some waiting up to 18 days for the restoration of service.
Wilma, of course, was a direct hit on South Florida, not a glancing blow. After it struck, FPL was harshly criticized for poor maintenance that allowed rotted out power poles to topple in the storm. The investments made since then included replacing or reinforcing about 115,000 poles, as well as improving technology and redundancy throughout the grid.
“What we learned is that a lot of those investments really paid off for customers,” said FPL spokesman Chris McGrath. “Not a single one of the power poles that we hardened failed in Matthew.”