- Associated Press - Saturday, October 22, 2016

MELBOURNE, Fla. (AP) - Ken and Sigrid McGlothlin prepared as well as anyone for Hurricane Matthew.

Days before Brevard County issued an evacuation order to barrier island residents, the Satellite Beach family booked rooms at a pet-friendly hotel, just in case.

They spent two days covering every window of their Thyme Street home with metal shutters. Lawn furniture was stowed in a partially drained pool, and TVs and other electronics unplugged. Recent renovations had installed stronger garage and front doors.

“We had a fortress here,” said 56-year-old Sigrid.

The fortress was in ruins. A blown transformer and downed power line likely sparked a fire that melted their hurricane shutters and left only the home’s concrete walls intact.

“We lost everything we’ve built up over a life,” said 54-year-old Ken. “Everything is gone.”

Officially labeled an “act of nature,” the fire showed the danger and unpredictability inherent in a major storm, even one that caused far less damage overall than was feared in Brevard.

It also focused attention on several issues that local officials say they will learn from to improve preparedness for the next storm.

Chief among those was a lack of water pressure needed to fight the fire, which followed confusion about if and when water utilities run by Melbourne and Cocoa planned to cut off their feeds to the barrier islands.

Satellite Beach firefighters quickly surrounded the McGlothlins’ home before sunrise on a recent Friday, working in powerful wind gusts and pelting rain, but found water pressure too weak to beat back the fire.

“We had the people and we had the equipment to flow the maximum amount of water,” said Fire Chief Don Hughes. “The thing that was missing was the water.”

Melbourne officials said they closed valves to the barrier island around 7 p.m. as a necessary precaution to protect the integrity of the broader system, which serves 150,000 people in Melbourne and surrounding communities including West Melbourne, Palm Shores and the beach south of the Pineda Causeway. They did so with unanimous agreement from the managers of the beachside cities the system serves.

In addition, they said an equipment failure at a pumping station, not a lack of water, caused the drop in pressure needed to fight the Thyme Street fire.

“We’re sorry as heck about what happened to their house,” said Mike McNees, Melbourne city manager. “It’s terrible, it’s tragic. But that doesn’t mean that segregating the island water system based on the information that was on the table was the wrong move. No, I think it was exactly the right move.”

A major rupture on the barrier island, if not isolated in advance, could leave the entire system unable to fight fires, serve hospitals or provide drinking water for days or weeks, compounding the disaster.

The day after the storm, Ken McGlothlin wondered if anything could have been salvaged as he surveyed the charred chassis of a beloved sports car left in the garage, and sifted through a guitar and record collection reduced to ashes, like other family treasures.

“The fire department did an outstanding job, but they didn’t have the tools they needed,” he said.

Discussions about the water supply began the night of Oct. 5, hours after a barrier island evacuation order had taken effect at 3 p.m., as Matthew swirled closer at Category 4 strength.

On a conference call involving county and city emergency managers, Chief Hughes asked about rumors circulating on social media that the utilities planned to cut off the islands.

The answer was an emphatic no, according to several participants in the call, with the utilities saying any word would come directly from them.

But 24 hours later beachside cities received little warning that water would in fact be shut off. Some learned about the plan from media reports.

Fire chiefs protested what they considered a last-minute decision. They assumed it would make fighting fires harder, as was the case when a Satellite Beach business burned down during a 2004 hurricane.

If pressure dropped, it might also limit the effectiveness of sprinkler systems serving many multi-story beachside buildings.

Given more notice, the chiefs said they would have planned differently. For example, they would have asked Brevard County Fire Rescue, which was evacuating the barrier islands, to borrow water tankers for backup capacity.

“We can be prepared, but you’ve got to tell us,” said Cape Canaveral Fire Chief David Sargeant, whose district receives water from Cocoa’s system. “You can’t make a decision at the last hour.”

Recognizing that the water decision reversed Melbourne’s message a day earlier, McNees convened a call with the city managers from Indialantic, Indian Harbour Beach, Melbourne Beach and Satellite Beach to seek their input and explain the situation.

Revised forecasts and models for a direct hit by winds up to 135 mph and storm surge up to 11 feet indicated a breach of barrier island water mains was highly likely. Barrier islands would lose water service no matter what, but the utility couldn’t allow such a breach to drain pressure from the rest of the system.

“We understood the model, we understood the risk of draining the entire city of Melbourne water system for over 100,000 customers had we left the water on,” said Mark Ryan, Indian Harbour Beach city manager.

The timing of the move was based on Melbourne not wanting to expose to dangerous winds utility workers who would close two valves controlling beachside feeds, each one taking a half-hour.

The utility managers explained that storage facilities held about 2 million gallons of water on the south barrier island and 3 million gallons on Merritt Island. For the south end, that was estimated to maintain pressure for about 12 hours - hopefully enough to get through the night - depending on any fire events and how much water was used by residents who chose not to evacuate.

County and city officials proceeded to urge their residents to conserve water.

McNees agreed that 6 p.m. was too soon to shut off Melbourne’s valves. They were closed around 7 p.m., according to the city, about an hour before tropical storm-force winds were forecasted.

Fire departments needn’t have waited until then, McNees said, to prepare for a potential loss of water pressure that could have many causes, including uprooted trees.

“It is not unforeseeable even with a Category 1 hurricane that pressure would be lost in the system,” he said.

Shortly after midnight on a recent Thursday, the Indialantic Fire Department responded to a fire at Riverside Drive, an unincorporated address typically covered by county fire crews who had evacuated the island at 7 p.m.

Supported by Satellite Beach, Indialantic extinguished the fire that destroyed an orchid house. “We did have water, but there was a drop in pressure,” said Indialantic Fire Chief Thomas Flamm.

Hours later at Station 55 in Satellite Beach, firefighters could not flush toilets. They placed buckets outside to collect more water.

McNees said that around 5 a.m. on a recent Friday, a beachside pumping station lost power and a backup generator did not turn on; that was about an hour and a half before the Thyme Street fire. The failure of a switch to automatically connect generator power to the pumps is under investigation.

Satellite Beach firefighters knew when they rolled out to 330 Thyme Street at 6:28 a.m., more than 11 hours into the utility’s estimated 12-hour window of water supply, that pressure was a problem.

With the water available, crews focused on keeping the fire from spreading to neighboring homes, evacuating some of their residents.

No one can say for sure that better water pressure would have saved the McGlothlins’ home given the very high winds.

Even if pressure wasn’t lost, evacuation notices explicitly warned residents that emergency services would stop responding to calls if conditions deteriorated badly.

Still, the first responders who stayed behind on the barrier island wished they understood sooner the water utilities’ plans under specific weather conditions, which were not spelled out in writing and communicated in advance.

“Maybe we all learned something,” said McNees. “I can tell you that there will be very clear policy written in very short order to deal with this situation.”

Local officials plan to discuss other issues, too. For example, why not also cut off electricity, the most common cause of fires during storms?

Melbourne will look into whether more automation of infrastructure is possible to reduce reliance on people to turn valves in dangerous winds.

“Everybody wants to work together,” said Hughes. “Let’s move forward to do what the citizens expect us to do, and that’s to always improve.”

The McGlothlins’ phones began ringing early Friday at the Viera hotel to which they had evacuated with family members and several pets.

A home on their Satellite Beach block was burning.

Frantic calls and Internet searches ultimately confirmed the bad news: the house was theirs.

“Our heart just sunk,” said Ken.

The next day, the family combed through the wreckage, moving carefully around burned appliances and mounds of debris. Dish fragments, charred picture frames and remnants of Ken’s sheet music and vinyl records - Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top - could be seen on the surface.

Sigrid McGlothlin was grateful that the family had evacuated, no one was hurt and neighbors’ homes weren’t damaged.

She rationalized that no one can take their possessions with them in the end. But the family, which was taken in by a neighbor, was just beginning to cope with the disaster.

“All of the sudden you see grandma’s china and it chokes you up,” said Sigrid. “It’s just a loss.”

___

Information from: Florida Today (Melbourne, Fla.), https://www.floridatoday.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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