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Okaloosa County Remembers Ivan

Patsy Knox

  Ten years ago, Hurricane Ivan brought widespread destruction to the region.  In Northwest Florida, Escambia and Santa Rosa counties were closest to the eye and suffered the most damage. As part of WUWF’s 10th anniversary series, Danielle Freeman has this look at the storm’s impact on Okaloosa County.  

Even though Ivan made landfall in Gulf Shores, Alabama nearly 100 miles away, Okaloosa residents still felt its tremendous force.  The Category 3 storm brought 10-15 feet of coastal storm surge from Mobile Bay to Destin, smashed trees through rooftops and downed power lines while the water from the gulf washed away roads and swiftly filled houses along the coast. Patsy Knox rode out the storm alone at her water front home in Mary Esther," There was mud in the windowsills here, it oozed under this, it had to come this high and ooze under it, but the strange thing was, there was not mud on the floor. It was like it filtered it, it was, there was water on the floor, but the burrow stayed in the window sill."

Knox and another couple were the only residents left on the block. As the storm surge pushed inland, it rearranged back yards, displaced objects from their docks pushing them clear to the main road, "My neighbor’s boat, it went, all that way to that road where you came into the subdivision is where he later found his boat."

"We had furniture floating in the house, floating all over the neighbor hood, after the hurricane anything we found in our houses that wasn’t ours, we set it out on the street so people could come and find it as they drove down the road."

That’s Okaloosa County Commissioner Don Amunds, who also lives in Mary Esther. When Ivan struck 10 years ago, he was working as a Deputy for the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office.  During the storm, his house was completely wiped out while he was on duty. Amunds says he’s used to helping others in the community and the experience gave him firsthand knowledge of what it was like to be a hurricane victim and benefit from the kindness of others, " One of the troopers, over a mile away found this plastic shoe box that had my sons name on it. His Matchbox Cars and his crayons were floating down Highway 98. So he found it. He called me on the radio and said isn’t your son’s name Robbie? And I said yes. Well, I have his crayons and stuff. Can I meet you somewhere? You know people were really terrific to us at the time."

Back in 2004, Ken Wolfe was the Emergency Management Coordinator for the county, a job he still holds today. Wolfe says that emergency response stopped as the storm hit because rescue vehicles such as ambulances are too top heavy to withstand the hurricane force winds. He says during that time period the Citizens Information Line, 311 received over 10,000 calls, "The 911 dispatch office at that time, our fire and EMS, and of course the sheriff’s office had their dispatch side and they were all racking and stacking the calls and prioritizing them based on what they heard. And as soon as the winds let up, the crews were responding."

After the storm, damage assessments were conducted as soon as possible. Wolfe says they found some stretches of Highway 98 that were in fair condition, but other parts, like on Okaloosa Island were not, " On Okaloosa Island, on Highway 98, during Ivan part of that road just totally disappeared, it was totally wiped out and that’s because the road wasn’t armored, what they call armoring, there was no foundation under the road."

Wolfe says there are now measures in place to help water from getting under Highway 98. He says, strengthening the road this way, prevents pressure that could pop the road up and wash it away, "Since then there’s steel plating that’s under the road on both sides like a barrier wall that’s been driven into the ground, plus armoring with rocks and things that are under the road."

Since Ivan washed ashore about 10 years ago a few other preparedness measures are now in place in the county. The Emergency Operations Center, located in the Court House Annex in Shalimar was only 2,500 square feet. It has since moved to a state-of-the-art 25, 000 square foot facility located on the Northwest Florida State College campus in Niceville.

The center is also using brand new computer software, Web EOC, to assist with disaster response and incident management and has added six additional operators to the Citizen’s Information Line. Now a days, as a storm approaches, a coordinated effort is made with Eglin Air Force Base and Hurlburt Field in order to stagger evacuation times for residents and military personnel. This effort minimizes road congestion and ensures the safest path possible if evacuation is needed.

Since Ivan, county leaders have gained a better understanding of what is needed for the area, Okaloosa residents have as well and are now better prepared to face future storms. Again, Don Amunds, "I learned a lot from it. My neighbors learned a lot. It brought the community together. They say with every bad thing, good things come out of it as well. And I’ve never forgot it."