Gainesville Regional Utilities’ (GRU) Safety and Training Facilitator Scott Holowasko was dispatching weather and safety updates from his office when Hurricane Irma arrived in Gainesville five years ago.
The Category 5 hurricane that measured 175 mph winds as it approached Florida had slowed to a steady 70 mph and was reduced to a Category 1 storm with wind gusts of up to 90 mph by the time it reached GRU’s service area on Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017.
Even though Irma had been downgraded, Holowasko learned firsthand how much destruction a Category 1 storm could produce.
“Just as it approached Gainesville at 1 a.m., I get a call from my wife saying a tree fell across the house,” he said, as he recounted the storm’s impact on his family.
“My wife, two sons, and two dogs had to pack up and drive through the height of the storm to safety.”
Storm season has arrived in Gainesville and Holowasko stands ready to dispatch weather and safety information to ensure GRU’s response to the storm is a success and that businesses and residents have the information they need to stay safe. Hurricane season runs through Nov. 30 with September being the most active month. This year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts Sept. 10 will be the peak of the 2022 storm season.
Holowasko sent his first storm season message out on Aug. 29, using information he gleaned from his go-to weather sources, which include the National Weather Service (NWS) and nine local city-owned weather stations.
His message: “There is a broad area of low pressure in the central Atlantic that is producing a large area of disorganized cloudiness and showers. There is a marginal chance this area could develop into a Tropical Depression in the next five days, but currently poses no risk to Florida. We will continue to monitor its progress over the next few days.
“Closer to home though, Alachua County and surrounding areas have seen an extended period of daily rains that is expected to continue through this week. There is the potential of up to four inches of rain in isolated areas each day. Many stormwater basins are already full and some road flooding has already occurred. The heaviest periods of rain are expected in the later afternoons and evenings along the I-75 corridor. Please be prepared for roadways to be under water during these times and for potential wash-outs in roads adjoining creeks and rivers.
“If roads are flooded, find an alternative route. Turn Around, Don’t Drown.”
Levels of Concern
Holowasko has worked in safety at GRU for 16 years. He is trained by the NWS and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on how to prepare and respond to emergencies, including storms.
“My job is to make sure the utility is informed and that city leaders stay up to date as I manage weather-related concerns,” he said.
Regarding his most recent email, Holowasko said storms developing in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico prompt him to evaluate and project the possible impact to Gainesville. “If we are anywhere in the five-day extended cone, or if we are tracking a potential storm, we start sending out updates to both GRU and General Government.”
His top concern as September begins is the amount of rain falling in already saturated areas.
“Flood watch is a top priority,” he said. “That’s going to impact us far more than what’s happening in the Atlantic.”
Holowasko scans the latest weather forecast, noting that there are flood watches along the I-75 corridor from Marion County to the Florida-Georgia border.
“The ground hasn’t soaked it up yet,” he said. Looking at the rain predictions, he added: “Even 2 inches a day, that’s 10 inches in five days.”
Responding to hazards
Holowasko said one main hazard during the rainy season, and during storms, is trees tipping.
“The expansive roots can pull up water and gas lines and knock down powerlines.”
His advice to anybody who has a tree fall on their property or who may need to leave their home because of storm damage is to, “determine if you can safely kill the power at the breaker box.”
“Anytime you have damage to a house, you don’t know what’s going to happen within the walls,” he said, noting that some homes have gas lines that run overhead in the attic.
He offers a checklist for these extreme cases: “Be aware of where your gas meter, water meter, sewer cleanout and main power circuit box is.”
Those should all be turned off before leaving the property or if the structure of the house is damaged.
Holowasko said his son cut off all power to their home when they evacuated and later an electrician disconnected damaged wires before power could be turned back on to the rest of the house. During reconstruction, a plumber turned off the water and gas.
Despite his personal experiences with Irma, Holowasko knows the damage could have been a lot worse.
“Had Irma stayed together, Gainesville would have been devastated by the backside of the storm,” he said. “But, literally, as it approached Florida, the back end of the storm just fell apart within two hours.”
Holowasko and his family were able to build a temporary back wall and stay in their home until reconstruction started the next year.
“But we were moved out of the house for about 10 weeks during the rebuild.”
To stay informed about GRU storm information follow @GRUStormCentral on Twitter and visit the GRU website for storm season prepareness information. Click here to learn more from Holowasko and GRU’s storm response.