As director of UF/IFAS Extension Sarasota County – and working as the county’s sustainability manager for 10 years before that — Lee Hayes Byron has seen her share of threats posed by hurricanes and tropical storms. Byron may never forget 2017, when Hurricane Irma passed through Sarasota County while heading north through Florida’s peninsula. During some frightening times, she and other Extension staff worked with county and school district employees to help meet the needs of many residents and their pets. A team spirit emerged through Irma and other storms. In addition to the collaborative efforts of her fellow team members, Byron credits shelter evacuees. One made Byron’s day while playing a trumpet, distracting distressed folks from their anxiety – even if only briefly.
Q: How many years have you been with UF/IFAS?
A: Since April 2018. I’ve been with Sarasota County since 2005.
Q: What is your role in UF/IFAS?
A: Extension director, Sarasota County
Q: What hurricanes have you dealt with in your work over the years?
A: Hurricane Irma was the one that came closest to Sarasota County and involved the most hands-on support from some of us at UF/IFAS Extension Sarasota County. In addition to Irma, in 2016 I helped close a shelter that was only open for 12 hours for Hurricane Matthew that was expected to impact south of us and was opened to support residents leaving that area for a safer region. As a director, I have also supported our county’s response for several potential storm events that thankfully did not end up landing here. But they still involved preparations, including daily calls, facility preparations, coordination with staff and communication with stakeholders.
Q: How did Hurricane Irma impact your community?
A: Hurricane Irma affected Sarasota County with maximum sustained winds reported between 40 and 50 mph, and gusts topping 70 mph. We experienced some flooding, wind damage, sustained power outages and tree debris that took months to clean up.
Q: For Hurricane Irma, what were your responsibilities?
A: For Hurricane Irma, I was part of the evacuation center staff at Brookside Middle School’s shelter. We opened the shelter, helped register people and get them settled. We also responded to questions, organized mealtimes, addressed health and security issues and closed the shelter after the storm had passed. We helped manage pets as well, since it was a pet-friendly shelter. During Irma, Sarasota County had over 20,000 evacuees in their shelters.
Q: Hurricanes often require a team effort. Who was a part of the team you worked with for Hurricane Irma, and what did they do?
A: I worked with county employees from other departments as well as school district staff. It truly is the epitome of public service to see these public employees who normally don’t work together — and often don’t know each other — come together to support their community in very difficult times. These staff leave their families — some of whom have evacuated out of the state — to step up and serve their community.
Q: What is something you will always remember about your experience with Hurricane Irma?
A: While trying to help evacuees get lunch before the storm arrived, a gentleman walked up onto the cafeteria stage and started playing his trumpet. He didn’t ask anyone if he could. He just brought up a chair, sat down and started playing. It was a beautiful addition to a stressful situation and the loud, chaotic cafeteria went silent while everyone turned their attention to the stage and appreciated the distraction from their anxieties and uncertainties.
It is an honor to serve the community in such difficult times. Shifting from a position I know well to one where you are performing new responsibilities and with new people is a challenge, but the response from the evacuees is incredibly positive and helps stay focused on the value being provided to the community. They are very vulnerable and scared and the evacuation center staff provide a safe place, reassurance and a sense of community. I learned a lot, got to know new county and school district employees and was proud to be able to support the county’s residents in that way. So many other county staff serve in countless emergency roles and they are all doing so as part of their commitment to public service.