I have never had to deal with something of the scope and scale of a Hurricane Katrina or a Hurricane Andrew, the Category 1 storms I've made it through were bad enough. Though it pains me to quote him, then-governor Jeb Bush remarked in 2004 that "there's no such thing as a minor hurricane."
In 2004, Florida got hit by four, count 'em, four named storms in a little more than six weeks. Prior to 2004's season, I believed the conventional wisdom that it's possible and even preferable to ride out low category storms. Newsflash, the conventional wisdom is a lie.
|Tropical Storm Bonnie|
It started in August of that year, with a tropical depression in the Gulf of Mexico. It smacked into Apalachicola on August 12th as Tropical Storm Bonnie. At that point though, folks here were busy panicking over Hurricane Charley. Hurricane Charley was due to arrive on August 13th and St. Pete Beach was the predicted landfall. That's less than five miles from where I'm sitting now. The county where I live started evacuations on the 11th and like a fool I stayed put. Everyone said that it was going to be a minor storm and so I decided to wait it out.
I went to bed on August 12th expecting a category two hurricane to arrive the following afternoon. I figured that I would lose power and that it would rain a lot. When I woke up Friday morning, the Category 2 Charley had turned into a Category 5 storm over night. We were still in the bull's eye at that point and since I'd not evacuated, the option to evacuate was gone. The bridges out of here had been closed down the night before.
I remember walking around and saying good bye to my earthly possessions that morning. I wasn't being hysterical or irrational. I knew that the sustained winds of a Category 5 storm would destroy my home and my neighborhood and that if I were going to survive the day I was going to have to think fast. Talk about a wake up call. My plan was to crawl into my bathtub and then pull a mattress over myself and hope for the best. I knew the windows would shatter and that the roof would probably blow off. I just hoped that the walls would hold. I remember resigning myself to the idea that I was going to have to start over from scratch if I made it through the storm.
At 11am that morning, Hurricane Charley took an unanticipated turn to the right as it tracked up the coast and it wiped Punta Gorda off the map instead of us. The storm passed us by about a 75 miles to the east and because it was such a compact storm, it barely even rained. It was the best let down I ever experienced.
I had a meeting the following week in Fort Myers, just south of where Charley made landfall. 30 miles from where it came ashore it looked like a nuclear bomb had gone off. The trees, the light posts, the billboards, everything that once stood upright was twisted and fallen over on the ground.
The season wasn't done with us yet. Less then a month later, Hurricane Frances ground ashore near Stuart and worked its way across the Florida peninsula. It grazed us as a tropical storm and everyone lost power for a few days. Two weeks after Frances, Hurricane Jeanne hit at Hutchinson Island, two miles away from Stuart. It followed almost the same path across Florida and hit us as a Category 1 storm. Jeanne knocked power for at least a week for a huge number of people. Trees came down, the wind whipped and the rain fell horizontally. Roof shingles and lawn furniture cartwheeled like tumbleweeds.
Having ignored an evacuation order I should have known better than to ignore and having ridden out a Category 1 no one saw coming that year was enough for me. I toyed very seriously with leaving my beloved Florida after that.
All of our experiences in 2004 pale when compared with the horror show that was 2005's Katrina. I still get sick when I think about that one.
The point of all this? Mostly it's to urge everyone to take weather bulletins and evacuation orders seriously. Even if you're safely out of the hurricane zone, odds are your area faces some other natural disaster. We keep what are called hurricane kits at the ready and that kind of disaster preparedness is a good thing to keep in mind for anybody. The St. Pete Times' Hurricane guide this year lists what should go into the perfect hurricane preparedness kit. To wit:
Food and drink
- Drinking water: 1 gallon per person per day.
- Nonperishable food supplies: Enough to see you through the first few days. A severe storm can interrupt delivery of fresh food to stores. You need to be ready to feed yourself until stores restock and reopen.
- Comfort foods to relieve stress (cookies, pastries).
- Toilet paper, paper towels, plates and napkins, plastic tableware and drinking cups, wet wipes, plastic wrap, trash bags.
- Two coolers: one for food, one for ice.
- Manual can opener.
- Flashlight and batteries for each person in your household.
- Light sticks.
- First aid kit with bandages, antiseptic, tape, compresses, pain reliever, antidiarrhea medication, antacid.
- Medications for routine illnesses such as colds.
- Liquid soap, hand sanitizer, wet wipes.
- Water purification kit.
- Two-week supply of vitamins, over-the-counter medications and prescription medicines.
- Fire extinguisher.
- Battery-powered clock.
- Infant necessities: medicine, diapers, formula, bottles, wipes.
- Supplies for the elderly or the ill: Depends undergarments, bed pads, medications, special foods.
- Pillows, blankets, sleeping bags or air mattresses.
- Folding chairs or cots.
- Extra clothing and shoes.
- Personal hygiene items: toothbrush, washcloth, deodorant, etc.
- Food and water.
- Earplugs. Shelters can be noisy, and someone sleeping near you may snore.
- Prescription medications in their original containers. Shelters are not hospitals and do not have access to drugs or medicine. Bring what you need.
- Books, handheld games, cards, toys, needlework, iPod.
- Cleaning supplies: mop, bucket, towels, disinfectant.
- Camera or camcorder to record property and document damage for insurance claims.
- Plastic trash bags.
- Cash. If the power goes out, ATMs will not work and credit card networks will be down.
- Paperwork: insurance policy, identification, home inventory, medical insurance card.
- Cell phone charger for your car. Also have a land-line phone (one that's wired to the wall, not wireless).
- A full tank of gas.
In the meantime, The St. Pete Times has the definitive hurricane guide again this year and you can find it here. And when a weather disaster's building, the best and least sensational source for updates is the National Hurricane Center's website. All they show are cold clear facts and in the panic that surrounds these storms, cold, clear facts are the road to salvation. So chin up, it's hurricane season!