A Series of Storms

I’ve never been one of those weather junkies who study weather trends or need to see a forecast before they go outside and/or decide what to do. In general my philosophy has always been, “You’re going to find out anyway, and there’s nothing you can do to change it.” Until September 2004, I didn’t realize that I ignored weather predictions to the point that I never even processed or tried to understand the little bit of weather knowledge I did have.

It was the end of my first summer living in South Florida and I was attending a weeklong conference with business associates who had flown in from Latin America. In the middle of the week we heard an announcement that there would be a hurricane on FridayHurricane Frances.

The organizers started rearranging the agenda, the attendees started making arrangements to go home early, local people started to talk about their home preparation and their scheduling. I was actually quite confused. I believe a direct quote was, “What’s going on? It’s not going to be here until Friday, right?” I got a few confused looks back and then somebody said, “Oh right, this is your first hurricane. They’re quite a bit different than tornadoes.” Then conversation got quite animated as they told me of preparations that I should make, offered me a place to escape from my apartment on the beach, and complained about the hassle they were about to endure putting up their shutters.

(As a side note, every person I know that doesn’t have a window system has plywood or metal that they store and use for every hurricane. I do not know who these people are that rush to Home Depot for plywood. Are that many people really discovering what hurricanes are for the first time? Every time?)

All of this made me feel pretty ditzy because I actually owned a poster of a hurricane. In it you can see quite clearly that the hurricane was wider than the entire Florida peninsula, but somehow I never processed that knowledge or translated it into anything practical.

Now I absorbed my lessons well and my boyfriend lived inland, so I had an escape plan and a good chance for survival.

Hurricane Frances didn’t damage the area we were in too badly, but we did lose power. And I have to admit I really enjoyed that. We were stocked with food, ice, water, and beer. We could cook on the balcony with the propane-powered grill and a camp stove burner. We had some great battery-powered lanterns. We played board games, went to a party in another apartment, went on a foray to a restaurant with power, listened to nonstop hurricane coverage on the radio. I think I really only missed electricity for refrigeration and clean clothes. I loved it!

A few weeks later, Hurricane Ivan threatened to come through but then changed paths. My mom was supposed to visit, so this one was also interesting. We became concerned about her visit because the forecast path was pointing at us. But the forecast was weakit kept changing. They told us that the models conflicted with one another. My uncle lives in Fort Myers, so I thought I could make this work. I decided that if Mom got here and a hurricane was heading for us, we could escape to the west coast for our visit. If she got here and it was heading for the west, we could wait it out in Miami and drive to Fort Myers after it left. Either model would work for me! Right after I proposed this idea to her, the forecast path changed again, this time to hit the southern tip and move right up the middle of the state! You have to be kidding me.

The hurricane ended up staying pretty far to the west of the Florida peninsula. My mom did come down one day after her original plan. Even though the path was quite far away from us, the weather was cloudy for her entire visit.

Hurricane Jeanne came a week laterthree hurricanes in the same month! My boss actually apologized for moving me down here. I think that conversation was the first of the many times that I’ve been told that hurricanes haven’t affected this area for 10 years. Hurricane Jeanne wasn’t really directed at us though. We didn’t even lose power. I was a little disappointed about that because I wanted another no power/ bonding/ camping experience, but my boyfriend was very happy. He wanted the TV coverage: watching the blob move on the screen, watching where it was, where it is now, and when it will pass us, watching those reporters out in the hurricane winds telling us to please stay inside, trying to keep standing there, being blown over. He also wanted the AC, unlike meI have an odd tolerance for heat. I usually don’t even notice it. That can be annoying to the miserable.

Despite this hurricane activity, Brian and I bought a house together in Novemberno more renting. I knew home owner’s insurance would be a lot more expensive than it was for my house in Illinois, but I didn’t realize that it was going to be incredibly difficult to obtain it at all. The insurance companies that I’d heard of either do not offer home owner’s insurance here or they offered it only to preexisting customers. After I called all of the companies that had name recognition, I went to several of those online insurance shopping sites. I also own “dangerous breed” dogs, so most of the response emails said, “Sorry, we can’t help you.” Others referred me to agents who told me the same. In Illinois I got around this by signing a waiver that excluded dog-bite liability from my coverage. But that suggestion didn’t fly in FloridaI don’t know why.

The home closing date was getting close and I was about to give up on private insurers and join the ranks of our state-owned “insurance company of last resort,” known as Citizens Property Insurance, when I was finally accepted by Federated National. This ended up being a mixed blessing because the insurance agent and/or the insurance company caused more problems than they solved. In March our home owner’s policy was cancelled because I didn’t act on letters that I had never received. I was attempting to resolve this when they told me that they non-renew policies when the house is 30 years old anyway. In March 2005 the house was 30, so the system wouldn’t have reinstated my policy regardless of fault. That was the last straw. Citizens, thank you for being there and for letting me sign a dog-bite waiver.

I have confidence in our house. It has solid concrete construction, the insurance inspector said the roof support is excellent, it came with easy-to-close accordion shutters … all in all, it’s just a very good choice. But it’s still a little worrisome to be a home owner. I’m somehow still not concerned about the possibility of something completely catastrophic, but I know that if anything happens, there is a long line for the materials and contractors necessary to fix it, even after you eventually get your settlement.

Hurricane Katrina was the first 2005 hurricane to affect our area. Everybody was saying, “Oh, it’s just a Category One,” and shrugging off preparations. Most windows were not shuttered. This prevailing mood infected me too, but our hurricane shutters are so easy to close that it would be stupid not to (my husband pointed that out as he was getting the ladder to close them). We decided we could leave the gazebo frame outside and the wind would go through it. We were stocked and prepared. That hurricane ended up striking closer to us than expected and I learned for myself that a Category One is still a hurricane, but we didn’t have any damage at all. We didn’t even lose power. Most of our neighbors did, but that happened after the hurricane while the power company was trying to fix something else.

Hurricane Wilma was also a Category One hurricane. This time I ignored the prevailing mood and prepared. I got a full tank of gas; there was no line. We always stay stocked with water, ice, and other essentials, so I didn’t need to go to the grocery store, but I assume it was equally relaxed. Maybe Katrina’s impact on our area reinforced the Category One attitude in some people, even though its winds had an opposite effect on me. Or maybe the hurricane path itself was influencing this mood. We had been hearing about it for a week and it was very delayed.

On its way up the Gulf of Mexico, Wilma got stuck over Cancun. It sat there spinning for three days as a Category Three. Those poor peoplethat sounds so awful. The forecasters were saying that even though it had been very slow-moving so far, the weather patterns counteracting each other and holding the hurricane over Cancun were going to get out of balance and an eastward force was going to push it towards us at 25 mph. The forecast picture looked very odd, impossible even, but all of the models agreed, so I respected it. We closed the shutters, brought everything in, removed the tarp from the gazebo, and watched TV. The hurricane was scheduled to hit us around 4:00 a.m. It was in the middle of the Gulf when we went to bed at midnight.

Hurricane Wilma’s path took it just to the north of my house. We were in the bottom portion of the eye. This means that the wind did not stop at all. In the other hurricanes I’ve experienced, I’ve been affected by the hurricane’s “bands.” In that situation, the wind will be very intense when the storm bands hit you, and then the winds abruptly stop. Then it’s intense again, then it stops again. These changes are very abruptthis is why people go outside, thinking it’s safe, and some of them end up being killed. They probably did not go out there during the actual winds. During Hurricane Wilma we experienced hurricane winds from approximately 4:00 a.m. until noon.

We could hear things hitting our house. We couldn’t look or see what they were. My neighbor lost almost every shingle he had. Still, we were fortunate. It was down to a Category One and it was moving through very fast. Again, I think of Cancun. We ended up with a broken gazebo frame and our cars and the house were stained and scratched by flying shingles. Several of our neighbors lost trees. We lost power for a week.

I was amazed at the helplessness of the people calling the hurricane radio show. The same afternoon the hurricane passed through, people were demanding to know where they could go to get ice and water. They were complaining about closed gas stations. Please, peoplejust a minimum of preparation. New Orleans was a different situation. People needed actual rescue there. The people calling in to this show were sitting comfortably in their homes lacking resources because they decided not to go shopping ahead of time. This bleeds the resources away from the people that did lose their roofs, or that had their glass condo facade explode into three floors of units, or any of the other multitudes of real emergencies that did happen. It’s so annoying.

Now it’s May. They say this year will also have a high level of hurricane activity. My experiences these past two years have prepared me, but I know that our area has been relatively lucky. Here’s hoping the luck holds out …

All storm path images used with permission from the National Hurricane Center Tropical Prediction Center.

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