Nine years ago right now, hurricane Wilma was on the move, headed for the southwest coast of Florida after pummeling the northeast Yucatan peninsula.
I was working with my team to finish up the placement of three unmanned camera systems, the first year of that project. We were ready, Wilma came, Wilma went. Millions lost power, stood in long lines waiting for ice, food, water, gasoline. It was as if the lessons from 2004 and the deadly hurricanes of 2005 hadn’t sunk in for people in south Florida. Some were prepared, most were not. Wilma ended up on the top five costliest hurricanes list and earned its place in hurricane history.
That was the last time any hurricane, no matter the category, made landfall in south Florida or anywhere else in Florida. Not a single one since 2005.
Let’s put it in to terms that most people these days can easily understand, especially considering the state of the Internet and social media.
When Wilma made landfall on October 24, 2005, Facebook was not yet open to the public (ages 13 or older with a valid email address). If there was Facebook for everyone, as there is now, you would not have been able to post a status update about your Wilma experience using an iPhone – it had not been invented yet.
What about posting 140 characters to Twitter about your harrowing encounter? You’d have to wait until late March, 2006 to do that.
When Wilma struck, there was no social network like we have today, not even close.
Children who were in 5th grade that day are now juniors if they chose to go to college.
Children who were born in Florida and have remained in Florida since Wilma have no experience with hurricanes what so ever. An entire generation is growing up without the fear, anxiety or any sense of what it is like to endure the greatest storm on earth. I worry, is this good?
We know that hurricanes are not extinct, they’re just not hitting the United States and in particular, Florida, with any regularity right now. We’ve had busy seasons – lest we forget two short years ago the legendary Sandy had its humble beginnings down in the Caribbean Sea. The hurricanes are there, they’re just not here.
I am not going to spend a lot of time on the “why” part of this issue. A lot of it is pure luck with the steering patterns that we’ve had. It also has to do with the overall numbers of hurricanes that have formed in recent years. The less of them there are, the less we have to worry – generally speaking.
This is not just a Florida issue. The lack of major hurricanes hitting the United States also stands at nine years now. We can certainly make the argument about what classifies as major. Look at Ike in 2008 or Sandy two years ago. Those were top five hurricanes in terms of dollar amounts, major events from an economic perspective. Therein lies the problem. If Ike and Sandy were not meteorological major hurricanes and caused that much damage, then we are going to be in for a world of hurt when a truly intense, large hurricane crosses the coast at the wrong location.
I know, you’ve heard all of this before. One day….blah, blah, blah. I assure you, the problem will be so big that it will overwhelm the state that it happens to and possibly tax the nation’s ability to deal with it on many levels. Why such a bold statement?
No major hurricanes anywhere in the United States in over nine years. That’s a long time for real estate to grow, both residential and commercial. Even with the slow-down during the recession/real estate bubble burst, there is still plenty of construction going on along the coast. People love the coast, always have, always will. The bait is out there, waiting for a hurricane to bite.
Coastal population has grown as well. I’ve read that some estimates indicate over 1 million people have moved to Florida since 2005. I wonder, how many of those folks have any idea of what it’s like to be on your own for two weeks? No food, no water, no services of any kind. It’s not pleasant.
I worry about emergency management and the ability of a community all the way up to the state level having the ability to respond to a major hurricane disaster. You can write up the best plans and attend countless conferences but until the experience hits you in the face and it’s real life, you cannot fathom what it’s like. I have friends in emergency management and even on the best of days, it is an utter nightmare to deal with the process of prepping for and then surviving a major hurricane. Add to the mix the fun and games of politics and you have a recipe for what amounts to leaving the people to fend for themselves. For the sake of the American people, local and state governments need to be ready to buckle down, work together, throw political gain out the window and get the job done. We’ll see, experience tells me that it won’t be that easy.
I worry most about the people. For the most part, people as a whole are not good at dealing with a sudden and catastrophic shock to the system. They eventually bounce back but the onset is often ugly and makes for interesting cover pictures on Time magazine.
There is nothing that I can do or say that can adequately prepare anyone for the nightmare of dealing with a devastating hurricane. Even a run of the mill hurricane can cause grief even if it’s just your house that was impacted by a falling tree of flooding from a nearby stream.
I have been in at least 25 hurricanes myself, most of them on purpose. Many of those experiences were not severe, more of a nuisance than an epic disaster. If every hurricane that hit was on the caliber of Katrina, no one would dare live at the coast. The fact is, most seasons go by without even a bother from the tropics, let alone a life-changing hurricane experience. It is difficult to convince people to take precautions against something that seems more like legendary stories than a real threat. It’s a tough balance between enjoying the lull and and at least keeping an open mind about what could happen.
I don’t want to scare people when it comes to hurricanes. They are to be respected, not feared. We fear what we don’t understand and it’s up to everyone who lives along the coast to develop at least some understanding of what hurricanes are all about. We’ve been given a gift of sorts these past nine years, especially in Florida. I just hope that gift was not Pandora’s Box.
M. Sudduth 1:00 PM ET Oct 23