By Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune
Scarcely a day after monstrous Hurricane Irma terrified Florida, demolishing sections of the state and leaving most residents without power, The Florida Aquarium opened its doors to the public.
Revenue concerns did not motivate the drive to get back to business. Prices were dropped to $10 for adults and $5 for children, and parking was free for Tampa Strong Days following the storm.
Once Irma passed the area early on the morning of September 11, staffers and volunteers hustled to the Aquarium to check that the animals were safe. Then their priority became to provide relief to a community in distress.
“There had been so much anxiety and tension; our goal was to get this building open as fast as possible to help with the healing process,” said Roger Germann, the Aquarium’s President and CEO. “We wanted to offer a gathering place.”
People obviously wanted such a sanctuary. More than 1,500 guests visited the Aquarium on the afternoon of Tuesday, September 12 when it reopened, and the crowds grew larger, with 22,000 coming throughout the week.
“People would walk over to say thanks,” explained Germann. “They now had a place where they could let their kids let off steam. Many didn’t have power and enjoyed our air conditioning. Some said they had their first hot meal of the week here.”
Senior biologist Shawn Garner said, “Many guests would stay all day. You would see them keep returning to the exhibits,” which provided a comforting diversion from a powerless, and stifling, home.
The Aquarium, which had minimal damage, gave away beverages and collaborated with Verizon to bring in a charging station, knowing storm victims would need to revive their phones.
Such attention to detail explains why The Florida Aquarium could so quickly prepare for the powerful Irma and then promptly reopen.
Germann credits Casey Coy, vice president for operations, and Rick Waterhouse, vice president of design and engineering, for thoroughly “buttoning up” the facility.
Coy, who oversees disaster preparedness, said as soon as Irma turned toward Florida, the administrative team began meeting daily. At the first meeting, everyone was charged with reviewing their areas and identifying potential problems.
The Aquarium has storm protocols, but Coy said nothing is taken for granted.
At the next meeting, the team began making decisions and going over necessities, such as ensuring there was plenty of fuel for the generators and abundant food and supplies for people and animals.
The Aquarium has a primary generator that can run 150 hours but can utilize other generators that can keep the fish tanks operating much longer.
At first it appeared the Tampa Bay area would be spared, but Irma kept edging westward to a track that could include Tampa.
The Aquarium building was designed to endure a major, possibly even a category three, hurricane, which hasn’t hit the area in nearly 100 years.
But Irma was crossing the Caribbean as a category five. The longer it headed westward and stayed offshore, the greater the odds it would be incredibly powerful if it hit Tampa. The stakes were high.
“I would live and die with every forecast,” said Coy.
The decision was made to close the Aquarium on Saturday, September 9, two days before the storm was predicted to arrive. Everyone worked to secure the building and exhibits.
Some animals, such as otters and lemurs, were put in holding pens, where they are kept nightly. To guard against storm surge, creatures such as the penguins and bamboo sharks were moved upstairs from the first floor.
Exhibits were topped off with seawater. With the help of The Mosaic Company, a new supply of fresh water was barged in and pumped into the Aquarium reservoir before the storm shut down Port Tampa Bay.
Some exhibits were covered. Plywood was put over glass. Sandbags were deployed. Equipment normally stored outdoors was put on pallets, wrapped and brought inside.
With Port Tampa Bay understandably worried about storm surge, the Aquarium’s Bay Spirit II, which takes visitors on tours of Tampa Bay, as well as the neighboring Victory Ship, were moved from their berths behind the attraction. It was the first time the tour vessel had to be moved because of a storm.
Lauren DeLuca, manager of marine operations, said the 72-foot tour boat ended up at the port’s Terminal Six, where was it moored against a huge fender used for cruise ships. “We put out a bunch of lines and a bunch of fenders and tied everything tight,” DeLuca explained. “It came through completely unscathed.”
Birds in the Wetlands Dome that cannot fly were captured and sheltered. Most of the exhibit’s birds fly free, but Coy said animal-care experts were confident the birds would find refuge in the building should there be a breach. All the birds are native to Florida and could survive in the wild if they escaped.
Germann said, “I was very confident we had done everything we could do.”
This was Chicago native Germann’s first hurricane, but he dealt with numerous snow storms, tornadoes and other weather crises in his previous job as executive vice president of Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium.
Throughout the preparations, the administrative team stressed the importance of giving employees time to care for their families and homes.
Executives were moved by the staff’s dedication to the Aquarium and each other.
Garner, for example, invited four fellow workers who lived in various flood zones in Pinellas County to his home near Raymond James Stadium.
“They all rode it out with me,” he said “We had five dogs, six birds, a cat, a turtle and various fish.”
His home and guests made it through Irma safely but he lost power for three days. No one fretted because they were eager to get back to work.
While preparing for the storm, the staff also planned for the aftermath, covering an array of details, including different communication options should phone lines and cell towers go down. Post-storm assignments were made.
“Biologists and maintenance workers are always the first to return,” noted Coy.
Because Irma veered and weakened, the region was spared massive damage. The Aquarium never lost power, unlike most of Florida. So, thanks to the detailed recovery plan, staffers could quickly get the facility ready for business.
The Florida Aquarium opened at noon on Tuesday, and Germann said it could have opened at the normal 9:30 a.m. time, but he wanted to give employees and volunteers some rest.
The reopening proved therapeutic for the public and Aquarium staffers alike.
“You would see our staff and guests intermingling, sharing their storm experiences,” said Coy. “It was cool to be a part of it.”
Germann admired the dedication of the entire staff and was impressed by the region’s leadership, particularly the City of Tampa, Hillsborough County and Port Tampa Bay.
But he said the Aquarium team will keep exploring ways to further strengthen safeguards. “With climate change, you can see the potential for even more events,” Germann asserted. “We will be holding debriefings. You always look for ways to improve.”
Or as Garner put it, “We were really prepped for a big storm this time, and we will be even more prepped next time.”
And it should not surprise that Aquarium personnel are taking on another chore: sending aid to the victims of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
Garner said, “We were putting together a package for Houston Aquarium biologists when Irma came. We’re going to get that shipped off and put together food and supplies to help out in the Florida Keys, where we have a lot of friends.”
It is another demonstration of the commitment and generosity that characterized The Florida Aquarium’s actions throughout the Irma ordeal.