Why there was only so much Bradenton could do when faced with a beast like Irma

Mark and Rhonda Coble thought they were prepared. They had plenty of water and ice. They took their pictures off the wall; they had a cupboard full of non-perishable food.

Their plan was to pull down the awnings on their mobile home and ride out the storm, not knowing that Hurricane Irma had ideas of its own.

Within 36 hours, thousands of people in Bradenton and Manatee County suddenly found themselves having to switch from watching a storm menace South Florida to realizing it had taken a westward swing and was now heading straight for them.

By then, they had little time to pack up, drive out or even find shelter.

In South Florida, where the psychic scars of Hurricane Andrew are still fresh, hurricane preparedness is a near obsession not confined to hurricane season. Impact-resistant windows and hurricane shutters have become as essential as a windstorm policy. Hurricane windows accelerate the process of burrowing in or preparing to flee with peace of mind.

Not so much in Manatee County, which has thousands of defenseless mobile homes and where maybe no one still living experienced the last direct hit.

Trailer park

Bradenton Castle Trailer Park resident John Martin looks out of his mobile home Sunday morning before heading to a shelter. In all his 11 years here, he’d never had to evacuate.

Hannah Morse hmorse@bradenton.com

For homeowners, having no impact-resistant windows or shutters means a last-minute trip to the Home Depot, coping with long lines for sheets of plywood for boarding up.

Although a county can order “mandatory” evacuations, and the fire department can roll down the street in a truck with a bullhorn urging people to flee, both of which Manatee County did, whether to stay or go still comes down to thousands of individual decisions.

And those decisions can be informed by past experience with killer storms.

Mark Coble admitted they were being stubborn and waited a little too long, but they packed a few items, along with their dog, and found shelter at Jessie P. Miller Elementary in Bradenton.

Most last-minute evacuees had little time to collect even pillows or blankets.

Fred and Linda Gemini fled Sunday morning with a few snacks in a bag and the clothes on their backs.

“This one scared me,” said Linda, who was born and raised in Bradenton. “I have two boats in my yard and they might be gone by the time I get back.”’

Manatee County’s emergency operations center has been open since Friday, and the “mandatory” evacuations began Friday.

But officials admit that they didn’t have the resources or staffing to handle it alone.

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A family snuggles among hundreds of evacuees at Jessie P. Miller Elementary School in Bradenton.

Julie K. Brown Miami Herald staff

“We rely on partners to help us. We don’t keep a ton of high-water vehicles around,” said Sherilyn Burris, Manatee’s emergency management chief.

By mid-day Sunday, half of the county’s 24 shelters were full, and some 53,500 people had been evacuated from a flood zone near the barrier islands.

More than 20,000 people were in shelters, camped out on air mattresses, pillows, lawn chairs and blankets.

All the shelters had food and supplies, county officials said.

Over 1,400 people were housed at Jessie P. Miller Elementary, and more were coming in on Sunday, said Principal Scott Boyes.

“It’s been crazy, but everyone has been orderly,” he said.

Zoraida McCreary and Blanca Perez were sleeping with their three children, all on one air mattress, along a long hallway filled with people.

“We made the decision at the last minute, because the hurricane got bigger and we got more worried,” she said.

But in the days leading up to the hurricane, stores could not keep up with the demand for plywood and other supplies to shore up their properties.

“There was a line a mile long at the lumber yard, waiting for plywood,” said Burris, who worked for Florida’s Division of Emergency Services during Hurricanes Dennis and Katrina.

I think it’s going to change our world — the way we build on the coast, the way residents communicate, the way we fund emergency management.

Sherilyn Burris, Manatee’s emergency management chief

She said there was little the county could do to help provide more.

“Our government is very small and our community is very big.”

Manatee, with a population of about 322,000 people, has a large elderly population, many of whom live in mobile homes. As of Friday the county logged over 8,000 calls to its hotline.

Burris said county fire-rescue crews went into communities affected by the mandatory evacuations to encourage them to leave.

The storm marks only the third time the county has fully activated its emergency operations center.

When asked if they’ve learned anything from such a terrifying experience, Burris said: “I think it’s going to change our world — the way we build on the coast, the way residents communicate, the way we fund emergency management.”