“In the days leading up to Irma,” Christopher Rozansky said, who is executive director of Naples Airport Authority, which manages Naples Municipal Airport, “walking through the lobby you could feel the tension and the anxiety as they were waiting to depart the area and evacuate elsewhere.”
Airlines canceled nearly 7,000 flights in and out of Florida last year because of Hurricane Irma . Two local airports, Naples Municipal and Southwest Florida International, had significant damage because of the natural disaster. To avoid future damages, these SWFL airports revamped its hurricane protocols.
“We were meeting several days before then with the airlines and our tenants and everybody involved in implementing our plan,” Jeff Mulder, executive director of Lee County Port Authority at Southwest Florida International Airport, said. “Once it was determined that they were going to cancel their flights starting late Saturday we took the steps we needed to take.”
The Lee County Port Authority manages and operates airports in Lee County.
“During the hurricane, we had three days without air travel at all so it impacted us there," Mulder said. "It was certainly disruptive."
Mulder said his airports canceled 440 flights. When the airports lost power, it was a complicated process to restart air service.
Residents were anxious about their property and loved ones who stayed in the area. They wanted to return home. The demand overwhelmed the airport. RSW, or Southwest Florida International Airport, was not able to meet that demand. It took several days to reopen the Fort Myers airport.
Mulder estimates a lost of $500,000.
Down the road in Naples, Rozansky said the flights at the airport are a little different.
“Most of the flights here are on demand versus RSW, where it’s scheduled service,” Rozansky said. “We started to lock facilities down and notify customers that we would be reducing our services. Within 12 to 18 hours before landfall, we made a decision to close the airport because in that sort of condition it’s just completely unsafe to have any aircraft operations.”
Rozansky said Hurricane Irma did a lot of damage to the facility — about $2 million worth. But crews cleared the runways as quickly as they could. The cleared runways offered a safe spot for relief flights to land.
A day later, emergency responders were granted access. Hospital staff was flown in after the storm moved beyond the area. They provided support in hospitals. These hospitals soon turned into shelters to house people with extra medical needs.
Now a year later, both airports are working on being better prepared for the next storm.
“We have taken some action to try to help ourselves,” Mulder said, the Lee County Port Authority executive director. “We have removed some trees near the power lines because that causes some of our disruption, trees falling on power lines. So we are in the process of clearing a larger wider path so that helps us in the future.”
“We actually found an emergency alert system that the state has adopted more so since Irma,” Rozansky said. “I know a lot of Collier County and others are implementing it. We’re in the process of implementing that.”