Bracing For Impact: Meteorologist Shares What FMs Are Facing With Hurricane Ian

As Hurricane Ian heads toward the Florida coast, a meteorologist shares what the situation may be like for facility managers in the area.

Photo: Adobe Stock – Mike Mareen

Hurricane Ian, currently a Category 3 storm, is expected to grow stronger as it comes closer to the Florida coast, according to the National Hurricane Center. From airports to theme parks, businesses are preparing for the worst-case scenarios as Ian shifts in its path toward the Sunshine State.

To provide additional insight, Facility Executive spoke with Mike Venske, a meteorologist with StormGeo, to discuss the forecast, changes in the projected path, and potential damage Ian may bring.

As a meteorologist, what is your biggest concern with this storm?

A lot of people focus on the winds associated with these storms, which is important, but they also need to focus on the water—whether it’s coming from the ocean or coming from the sky. We’re getting a little bit of both from this storm, actually all three if you include the wind, but people shouldn’t forget about the storm surge and the heavy rainfall that’s going to accompany this storm.

From the time of our discussion, where is this storm heading? What element of this storm is going to potentially cause the most damage?

I’ve seen the track of the storm move from making landfall north of Tampa, then to the south of Tampa, and now, almost as far south as Fort Myers. For places like Tampa, that’s good news because it’s farther away from the storm. I think wind and rain will impact Tampa the most, whereas this time yesterday [the city was facing] an almost worst-case scenario. Things are definitely improving in Tampa, but it’s not going to be nice by any means.

So now, focus shifts down toward the Fort Myers area. Since it’s making landfall a little sooner and a little further south, it’s actually going to be a little bit stronger than if it had made landfall further north. While there’s a huge risk of storm surge and very heavy rainfall all across Florida, the winds will be more of an issue now, verses 24 hours ago if it made landfall further north.

The combination of a lot of wind, and a storm surge that could be 8 ft.-12 ft. above normal will likely cause flooding and keep people from getting to and from locations.

How bad could the damage be from the storm, especially if it’s supposed to hit sooner than originally expected?

We think it’s going to be a Category 3 at landfall. There was a storm around the same area back in 2004—I believe it was Charley—and I think it’s going to be somewhat similar to that in terms of damage. Windows ought to be boarded up and outdoor items need to be secured, which is recommended for any kind of tropical system, but you really have to be aware that there’s water coming in. If you have a lot of important, critical infrastructure in a lower level of your building, and you’re close to the water in a surge zone, you’ll need to really focus on getting that stuff out of there and making sure nobody moves into the office and then gets stuck there because of flooding.

What has been some of the best responses you’ve seen to storm like Ian?

The utilities or electric providers really have it down to a science. If they’re being impacted in a certain area, there’s a lot of mutual assistance with utilities companies. So, you’ll have a storm like Ian hit in the next coming days, but you’ll have other utility companies from all over the country lining up along the side of the interstate close to the southeast of the U.S. waiting to move in as soon as the conditions allow it. Utility companies are responsible for taking care of their own service areas, staging people where they need to be, making sure their critical assets are safe, in addition to calling for mutual assistance and providing mutual assistance behind a storm.

Some facilities, like airports, have engineers and plumbers onsite during storms to keep the building up and running. Do a lot of other facilities have to keep personnel onsite during storms? 

Even for the oil and gas refineries, office buildings, airports, you have to have people there to maintain the facility during the storm. You also need a team that comes in after the storm, and for that you need to know when it’s safe to come in—all while heeding local emergency management evacuations that may be put in place.

With a storm of this caliber, is there any way to truly prepare for it?

The difference with this storm that’s making it really challenging is a little shift north or a little shift south could result in the potential for a drastic change in impact where you are. But, people and businesses in Florida are accustomed to these storms and have plans in place. I think the uncertainty comes from this type of storm—like for example, 24 hours ago, businesses in Tampa were looking at a near worst-case scenario. Now, it’s seeming like it won’t be as bad, but you can’t totally let your guard down, because there is still going to be a lot of wind and rain.

For the area of Florida that does end up getting hit the hardest, what do you think the recovery process might look like?

The surge is going to be as bad as it’s going to be. At first, it might be a challenge getting employees and people in for the recovery process. Not to mention, employees are going to want to take care of their family, first and foremost. These businesses need to make sure that their employees and their businesses are taken care of, because you won’t get a lot of effectiveness [during the recovery process] out of your employees if they’re concerned with their personal life.

That’s going to be tough, getting people back in—but as far as buildings go, they’re pretty hardened for this stuff along the Gulf Coast. Homes immediately on the beach on the Gulf Coast will likely suffer severe damage, but businesses that are fortified with concrete, that are hurricane-rated, will probably be okay. They could have some blown out windows and things like that.

I think the water really needed to be paid attention to. The surge will come in, and then it will move out, but what does it bring in with it? What does it knock down with it? What is spread out across the road? So, the main challenge initially will likely be how to get people in to start the recovery process.

I think an area that might be overlooked with this storm is the East Coast of Florida. It won’t be as strong when it hits there, but places like Jacksonville, that have the St. Johns River, with the wind and the water coming in right around there—it can cause significant flooding in downtown Jacksonville—just like it did during, what I believe was Hurricane Irma just a few years ago.

What are some resources that are facility managers can rely on during the recovery process?

A commercial weather service, and social media outlets, especially Twitter, are helpful resources. If there’s an emergency situation, follow local emergency management and your county, who can provide a lot of real-time updates and information. Social media, with smart phones these days, is a good way to keep up with things.

Is there any advice you’d like to give to facility executives on coping during storms such as this one?

Take care of your people. If they’re concerned with other things, which is their families, friends, pets, homes, etc., they’re not going to be able to help you as effectively. Focus on your people leading into the storm, making sure their preparations are taken care of, so they can help you with your preparations as a business.

On the other side of the storm, it’s the same thing. Make sure they come in, they’re back with their families, they’ve monitored everything in their personal lives, and then they can come back to work with peace of mind and can really help you with your recovery.

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