The consequence of luck

The last hurricane to make landfall in Florida - hurricane Wilma, October 24, 2005. Not a single hurricane anywhere in Florida since...

The last hurricane to make landfall in Florida – hurricane Wilma, October 24, 2005. Not a single hurricane anywhere in Florida since…

October 24, 2005 – hurricane Wilma makes landfall in southwest Florida as a category three, weakening to a two before exiting the coast near Jupiter.

Wilma caused the single largest power outage in the history of Florida. Despite the rash of previous violent hurricanes such as Katrina and Rita just months before, scores of people went unprepared to deal with Wilma and lined up to receive ice and basic needs for weeks after.

That was the last time that a hurricane, any hurricane of any intensity, made landfall in Florida. It was also the last time that a category three (major) hurricane struck the United States.

Since that time, 66 hurricanes have formed in the Atlantic Basin and none have managed to make it to Florida. Yet, over 2 million people have moved to the Sunshine State since that fateful day in late October, 2005. (These stats from Dr. Phil Klotzbach via his recent Twitter posts – thanks Phil)

I think it is safe to say that Florida in particular and the United States as whole has been remarkably lucky considering what many believed to be the new normal post 2004-2005.

Those who said that could not have been more wrong if they tried.

The hurricane landfall drought for Florida is stunning. The major hurricane landfall drought for the United States just makes it even more so, almost to the point of absurdity. While it may be novel to discuss and remark over the fact that so many people have now gone a quarter of a generation with a grand total of ZERO hurricane experience, it comes with a price. I call it simply “the consequence of luck”.

I liken this theory to a bad driver who constantly speeds and drives aggressively without any consequences – no bad luck as it were. He never gets caught and keeps doing it until one day it all catches up and the worst happens. That driver suffered from stupidity combined with a learned behavior that taught him this equation: good luck while doing bad things = more bad things being done until the good luck ends. The analogy can be applied to anything really that has a negative outcome where luck is involved. Someone who embezzles money keeps doing it until they get caught which is another way of saying that their good luck of not getting caught helped to ensure that one day, they would in fact face the music. It goes on and on and I think the principle applies very well to our hurricane problem.

For ten years coastal residents (inland too) have enjoyed mostly hurricane-free living. Now I realize more than most that yes we have had hurricanes such as Ike, Gustav, Sandy, Isaac and so on. All of those matter for the people they affected. But on the grand scale, we have seen nothing like Katrina for 10 years. That is a good thing, no doubt about it. However, I ask this question: when does the string of good luck become a problem in terms of getting people to act and do their part to be hurricane prepared? During this time of no cat-3+ hurricane landfalls, millions of people have moved to the coast. Have hurricane plans been updated to take this in to account? How many coastal counties have new emergency management directors who have never experienced what a hurricane, let alone a cat-3+, can do? The list of questions could be lengthy if I had the time to think about all the possible bad outcomes to our string of good luck.

If we somehow knew with 100% certainty that hurricanes were a thing of the past, then this would be my farewell blog. Instead, it is my wake up call to remind you of how bad things can get. It’s not hype nor fear mongering – it’s a warning from someone who knows first-hand how miserable life is during and especially after a hurricane, particularly an intense one.

The NHC and local NWS offices are putting forth a tremendous effort to promote hurricane preparedness. Social media with the #hurricanestrong theme is abuzz with tips, ideas, risk assessment links and so on. Does anyone care anymore? I know some do but is it enough? How many people have become so relaxed or worse yet, know nothing about their risk, to pay attention?

I worry about this as we approach yet another hurricane season. The distractions in our daily lives are more than most of us can process. There is so much noise out there that the voice of reason is often muted and lost.

I fear that too many people are apathetic to the hurricane risk and have forgotten what it looks like (and feels like) when people stand in 95 degree heat waiting for ice and water. Forgotten? Heck, it hasn’t happened in so long that I believe it will come as a major shock to our collective souls once it happens again. It will seem worse than it actually is. Why? Because we’ve been lured by Lady Luck in to believing that every hurricane is going to miss or won’t turn out as bad as “they” say.

I am only going to say this one time: you have no idea what you’re dealing with if you think you know hurricanes.

It’s great to be lucky; it’s rewarded many people over the ages. Like time, luck runs out sooner or later and the two are more closely connected than you think.

Do yourself and the rest of us a favor if you live in a hurricane prone region of the United States or anywhere that tropical cyclones can impact: know the risks, know your vulnerability to those risks, make a plan and carry it out when time comes. Or, just flip a coin and hope for the best. My vote is on being armed with knowledge then utilizing that knowledge to minimize the impact.

Hurricane season for the Atlantic begins on June 1. The season lasts for six months. will be on top of it every step of the way. It is my sincere hope that my 20 years of studying the impacts of tropical storms and hurricanes when they affect land will help you to not suffer and become a front page story for Time or your local newspaper. If ever you have a question, no matter how lame you think it is, please ask via email or social media. I take it as a my responsibility to educate others considering that I have had the privilege of doing what I am most passionate about for my career. Be safe this season and don’t worry, most of my blog entries won’t be so full of angst. Sometimes you gotta hit people with a sledge hammer to get their attention :-)

M. Sudduth