Patrick Riley, email@example.com; 239-263-4825 Published 8:02 p.m. ET Sept. 22, 2017 | Updated 12:15 p.m. ET Sept. 23, 2017
When Hurricane Irma barreled toward Southwest Florida almost two weeks ago, thousands of residents fled north, clogging the state's highways. Thousands more flocked to shelters, causing schools and arenas to quickly swell to capacity.
Some parking garages also filled up rapidly.
Residents desperate to protect their vehicles from Irma's tree-snapping winds and possible floorboard-drenching storm surge, parked their cars in public and — in some cases — private garages en masse. That prompted some government officials and property managers to re-evaluate how to police parking before the next storm.
In Naples, the city's two public garages filled up "very quickly" despite the need for city cars and employees' vehicles to be parked there during the storm, said City Manager Bill Moss.
"We ended up putting up barricades on one deck" to reserve them for the city's own needs, Moss said, but some drivers just moved the barricades and parked anyway.
"Just a real mess," he said. "Parking just became chaotic."
The city had to park its vehicles in garages at the Coastland Center mall and the Hyatt.
Of the 700 total spaces at the two city garages, city employees and vehicles used only about 20 spots, Moss said.
Although the residents have the right to park at the public garages, the structures are not designed to accommodate vehicles for prolonged periods of time, Moss said.
"Whether or not they have the full right to store their cars is a different issue," he said.
Even more than a week after the storm, Moss said, there still were some cars that residents left at the garage before Irma hit. Some cars had to be towed so drivers could access their own vehicles, he said.
City officials will assess what went right and what didn't, and try to come up with a better plan before the next big storm, Moss said.
"We might have to staff each garage," he said, "to make sure the parking is at least organized."
At Collier's government complex in East Naples, officials had to close the two county garages to the public temporarily to make sure county and law enforcement vehicles could be safely parked there during the hurricane.
"In the days leading up to Irma’s arrival, members of the public started occupying spaces in those garages with cars, boats and other personal items that were clearly there for safekeeping and not for the intended purpose, which is for people doing county business," said Michelle Batten, a Collier County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman, in an email.
To be able to safely store and then deploy law enforcement and county resources right after the storm, the Sheriff's Office closed both garages three days before the hurricane hit Southwest Florida, Batten said.
Once all county assets were parked, the two garages were reopened to the public a day before the storm arrived to allow residents to park their vehicles in the remaining spaces, she said.
Batten said there is no plan yet for what should happen with public garages before the next storm.
"This event reminded us that this is something that needs to be included in our pre-storm planning meetings with county officials," she said.
Collier's third public parking garage — at Vanderbilt Beach — usually is supposed to be for beach parking only, but it was opened to allow residents to park their cars during the storm, said Troy Miller, a county spokesman.
About 180 residents parked their cars there to protect them from any potential storm surge, he said.
Some privately held garages also opened their parking spaces to the public for the duration of the storm.
At Waterside Shops in North Naples, the parking garage was opened to residents of Pelican Bay after they started calling the shopping center days before the giant storm swept through the county, said Kellie Jacoby, a spokeswoman for the mall.
"It kind of happened organically," she said.
First, the garage was opened to Waterside Shops employees, Jacoby said, and then to Pelican Bay residents. It was the first time the 850-spot structure was opened to the public for an event like Irma, she said.
"All the residents and employees were very happy," Jacoby said. "It did fill up rather quickly."
The shopping center was pleased to be able to offer the spaces to Pelican Bay residents, and those who snagged a spot were grateful, Jacoby said. But whether the service to the public will be offered for the next storm is up in the air.
Managers will continue to evaluate the issue, she said.
Messages to the Coastland Center mall general manager were not returned.
A spokeswoman for Mercato declined to discuss what the rules and policies for the North Naples shopping center's parking garage are before and during a storm.
"(The) safety and well-being of every guest and employee who enters Mercato is our top priority," Deborah Blackford said in an emailed statement.
"We have a customized public safety program with a large number of security measures for natural and other disasters, many of which are not visible to the general public," she said. "We do not discuss the specifics of our public safety program because that would compromise our efforts."