Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Dealing With Hurricanes

How to deal with a hurricane, there's a subject no one can answer. These people figured Hurricane Eta, a Category One storm (74mph sustained, albeit briefly in this case) might flood their streets so they followed the time honored strategy of parking away from home at the highest parking spots in these low lying islands: approaches to the Highway One bridges.
Keys Weather
We got a few calls at work from people who live under the delusion that dispatchers are centers of information. I found the Monroe County Emergency Management page was easy to read well laid out and packed with information. So when Anxious Vacationer called I went to the page which you will now bookmark and promise me you will never ever bother dispatch with questions about whether or not you should come on vacation in the face of a storm. Or whether to evacuate or will the storm hit us or any other of the vague haunting feelings of inadequacy that strike the hearts of the uninitiated. If you don't have a camper van make a hotel reservation within a day's drive and try to make it for your likely evacuation date. then go stay in a  hotel and see what happens.
Keys Hurricane Weather
The advice business is not my thing but the advice I try to give  when I'm pushed into a corner goes like this: I start by trying to understand the questioner just a little bit. Are you a Disney vacationer? Someone who expects no adventure, perfect room service and all attractions like all menu items available exactly as promised? Or do you rate a vacation a success if you come away feeling like you accomplished something, learned something and felt a jolt of excitement? Do you get pissed if the lights go out? 
Hurricane Eta
This isn't a right or wrong quiz, neither vacationer is better than the other but one of them won't feel good waking up in a "wind event" and they are the people who call dispatch at three in the morning and say "the lights went out..?"  My answer when I was on night shift was always "Do you have medical equipment that needs electricity?" After that you have to help the resort vacationer, even the one in an Air BnB come to terms with the fact that the lights will come back when they come back. My advice? Go back to sleep, which never pleased any of the worriers. Rest assured Keys Energy has put a lot of money into the power system and the lights don't go out very often at all. Actually there wasn't even a hint of an outage in this latest storm. And I never expected there to be one. 
Hurricane Eta Preparations
Flooding. There's a thought to scare anyone, brown water filled with alligators and sewage swirling through your living room...the scenarios are enough to keep anyone awake as they listen to the storm arrive. Hurricane Wilma in 2005 wrecked Key West with flooding, backwash, rain and lots of terrified 911 calls. We'd seen New Orleans sink under Hurricane Katrina a few months (and several hurricane letters) previously and it was chilling. I studied that storm and spoke to old timers who had known flooding was in the cards. East winds from Mexico flood Key West and I have watched that pattern ever since and it has held true. Pay attention because if a storm comes from the Yucatan to Key West expect flooding and get serious with your sand bags, something like what you see above at CVS.
Hurricane Eta
140 mile an hour winds break all the rules. My rented home on Cudjoe got 7 foot surge when Hurricane Irma landed from the south, breaking the previous rule wide open.  Part of hurricane preparation is learning to understand storms as they approach. Speed of approach, intensity, tightness of the whirl and listening to the government's weather people. All the colorful amateur dramatics you see on weather channels and websites come from the experts at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Watch the videos and the colorful graphics for fun but rely on the NHC.
Florida Keys Storm
The final commandment is don't be stupid. Before a storm arrives the blowhards and drunks and partiers will be full of advice and bravery and experience ready to share. When the wind starts to pick up and the time is past for decision making their advice and bravado falls away and you are on your own. Preparation is the most important element of any endeavor and hurricane preparation will allow you to face whatever happens with an inner calm. You may not get it right but you paid attention and did your best. I knew Eta was not a property threatening storm but I put away outside furniture and even though we didn't secure our hurricane shutters we did try to make sure nothing would blow away. I've got good at this because when the threat is serious, typically I get locked down at work and cannot do anything at the last minute as I am not allowed to leave the police station prior to the storm's arrival.
Post Office Key West
Waiting for Hurricane Irma my wife and dog were safe in Pensacola evacuated as soon as the schools closed (hint: leave the Keys as soon as the district closes the schools) so they were gone before everyone else. So when Florida was stalled in a statewide traffic jam, choked in long lines at empty gas stations they were snug and 800 miles away. I had two days at home with everything put away and a hollow feeling in my stomach. We knew the storm was going to be awful and I looked around wondering what it would be like in a week, and it was indeed a terrible time recovering from Hurricane Irma, but prior to its arrival we had done everything we could and there was nothing left to do. I went swimming in the canal, ordered pizza just before they closed, and opened a bottle of wine. Three days went by. My neighborhood was wrecked, I had to flush the police station toilets by hand for a week (don't ask) and my car was destroyed. No regrets as I had done what I could. Oh and Rusty was safe. Very important that!
Florida Keys Storm
Before this little storm arrived someone asked me if they should borrow a friend's upstairs guest unit for the duration. I said I don't think it will be necessary but if you want a good night's rest go for it. Make the decision early, act on it and don't second guess yourself. They chose to leave their ground floor unit and slept there through the light winds and rain of Hurricane Eta. They made the right choice and acted on it and when next I see them they will tell me they slept well. No better way to get through a hurricane of any category.
Key West Hurricane
Pay attention, prepare and be an adult. Easy peasy. Don't refer to storms by gender as their names identify natural events not gonads. Remember, and this is important, government building codes work. Deaths from weather events in developing countries far outnumber deaths in the US. Check out the statistics. We build our buildings right and for the most part wind doesn't blow them down. Hurricanes spawn tornadoes and they are the source of most damage within a broader hurricane.
Hurricanes are ruinous economically but in this country they don't kill, not nearly as much as fires, landslides tornadoes and whatever else. With modern forecasting and excellent communication, strong buildings and lots of planning experience hurricanes are not fearsome. If you plan and think Death is a possibility but it is not likely.
Florida Keys Mile Zero
Years ago I figured out a way to find my comfort zone limits. After a short lifetime, (in my 20s) of being told constantly I was going too far the naysayers led me to ask myself a simple question: What's the worst that could happen? Then I dig into the worst possible outcome. Then I ask myself: How much will I regret that outcome? Then I have my answer so even now (decades later!) when people tell me I'm doing the wrong thing I make my own judgements based on the worst possible outcome. My form of risk assessment. Ever since my failures have left me shrugging, struggling sometimes and an emotional wreck from time to time but that's life!  Hurricanes? Annoying and in this case I've merely lost a weekend off to wind rain and weather I can't stand.
Dog In A Keys Storm
This weekend has reminded me of my weakness and I have to think it through. I hate rain, I don't like being cold and I am fussy about my quota of sunshine. If we are to travel far and wide I need to get over it. This hasn't been a cold weekend but I haven't sweat in three days and I'm wearing a t shirt under my shirt, Lovely, right? Summer is over. My wife is pondering where we are going to store our winter clothes in the van. Wait, what? Winter...clothes...Right. We can't go far and wide without winter clothes. I need to come to grips with this. Thank you Eta for reminding me. Hurricanes are as nothing compared with frostbite. Heaven help me.


In order that I may not sound like a blow hard myself I should point out I have sat through every storm since the summer of 2004, and most recently that all culminated in the arrival of Hurricane Irma right over my house actually with 140 mph winds. My house survived but there was a great deal of damage. That you may judge my experience for yourself I have laid out some of my writings and photographs from that difficult time:

Hurricane Irma September 2017:

Some photos of my experiences in my most recent storm in 2017. First is the worst damage in Key West which occurred at Willie T's bar on Duval Street, soon fully recovered:

Cudjoe Key

September 2017