Tornado Aftermath: Picking up the Pieces

| March 1, 2016

By Robert Frederickson

In the immediate aftermath of the F2 tornado that ripped the roof off building five at the Excelsior Beach to Bay Condominiums on January 17, the first reaction of residents and guests at the complex after the initial shock was one of relief. Things could have been so much worse. No one died on the Key as a result of the storm. There weren’t even any serious injuries attributed to the twister that swept in from the Gulf that frightening Sunday morning, though a couple in Duette, Florida was killed by another tornado spawned by the same system that produced the one that left its mark on Siesta.

So a few days after the storm, with the danger past and cleanup efforts underway, things started to return to normal; and as they did, an intriguing question arose in the minds of residents and county emergency management officials alike: just where had building five’s roof gone? There was certainly debris strewn about the Excelsior grounds and adjacent properties said Scott Montgomery of Sarasota County’s emergency management team. But not to the degree one would expect given the volume of material that would have comprised the building’s missing roof.
So where was it?
The likely answer? Just to the east, below the now peaceful waters of Little Sarasota Bay.
Not a bad thing you might think, since such an outcome might be assumed to reduce the time, trouble and expenses of the cleanup effort. 
But not so fast. Rather than helping, the submerged debris would pose an even greater challenge for cleanup crews than would have been the case if the wreckage had been confined to dry land.

That’s because all that debris couldn’t simply be left ‘buried at sea,’ so-to-speak. It would need to be retrieved and hauled away. 

Photo courtesy of Sarasota County

Photo courtesy of Sarasota County

“The county has the responsibility to keep the bay clear of anything that could pose a navigational hazard,” said Montgomery in a recent phone interview. It’s also important to the health of local waters that they not be fouled by construction debris or other inorganic materials, he explained.

But first, the debris would have to be located. As it turned out, the county had a tool well suited to the task.

“We have a side-scan sonar that lets us see what’s down there,” said Montgomery.

It’s the same type of high-tech device routinely used by treasure seekers and salvage companies. In this instance, it offered a considerable savings in time and effort for the county – not to mention enhanced safety – over alternatives like putting divers in the chilly January waters to visually scan the bay’s bottom.

It didn’t take long for the sonar to map out a large debris field spread across the bay floor between the Excelsior’s bay frontage and the western end of Baywinds Lane on the mainland where the tornado made its second landfall.

Photo courtesy of Sarasota County

Photo courtesy of Sarasota County

Once the sonar had located the storm wreckage, a barge equipped with a crane/drag line was used to scoop the debris from the bay bottom and deposit it on additional barges nearby that then ferried it to a landing site near the Stickney Point bridge where it was loaded onto trucks and hauled away.

How much debris was recovered? “33 tons of it,” said Montgomery. It took roughly a dozen county workers the better part of three days to complete the task, he explained.

It’s a sobering thought, given the storm’s relatively compact footprint in the area. Just imagine the scope of the cleanup efforts following a hurricane blowing in across the entire length of the island instead of across just a few hundred yards of it, as was the case here. Montgomery would probably rather not consider that scenario, but then again, given his position, he doesn’t have that luxury.

Building Department Update: Permitting process Continues

Last month Siesta Sand reported that the Excelsior and its insurers would be required to provide the county building department with an engineering analysis of the damage to the two structures on the property most heavily damaged by the storm: building five near the bay and the gulf front building on the opposite side of Midnight Pass Road. The gulf front building did not lose its roof but still sustained major damage to many of its mechanical and safety systems, including damage to the A/C system and broken or missing balcony railings. Both buildings were deemed uninhabitable and evacuated on the day of the storm.

As we went to press, both remain uninhabited, and according to our latest information from county building official Kathy Croteau, the required engineering analysis needed as part of the final permitting process had not yet been received.  Permits will not be granted for final repairs to the buildings until that analysis has been received, reviewed and approved by the county, meaning that early projections for repairs to be completed within three months of the storm’s January 17 date were perhaps overly optimistic. According to a Siesta Sand source wishing to remain anonymous, the most optimistic timeline in place now calls for a completion date three to six months from now, taking us well into summer.

As pointed out in our earlier story recounting the experience of those living at the Dolphin Towers in downtown Sarasota when it was deemed uninhabitable by the city five years ago, optimism is sometimes difficult to sustain in situations like this when insurers, owners, contractors and government agencies are all at the same table, each group with its own, often competing set of priorities.

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