TCS Daily

The Eyes Have It: Florida's Hurricane Lessons

By Patrick Cox - November 1, 2005 12:00 AM

MARCO ISLAND, Fla. -- Hurricane Wilma was one of those either half-empty or half-full glass things. It's hard to say we were lucky to be hit so hard by the late-season storm, but the truth is that things would have been far worse if the hurricane had not been so very strange in so many ways. Moreover, Wilma offers lessons that could prevent multiple Katrina-magnitude disasters if they are heeded.

Almost from the beginning, NOAA's projected storm track had Wilma's eye passing pretty much right over Marco Island, where I live, just off the Gulf Coast from Naples. Ultimately, landfall was about three miles to the south at Cape Romano, part of the same barrier island-structure as Marco though divided by several tidal rivers. This degree of accuracy was nothing short of astonishing given various startlingly unpredicted aspects of Wilma's brief but spectacular career.


Much of Marco Island is only a few feet above sea level and a strong hurricane, coming straight in from the Gulf, is capable of piling up a lot of water -- just as Wilma did in Mexico. So, knowing that there would be no similar threat of flooding on the East Coast, my wife and I evacuated south to Miami with the two kids. We could have gone north, as so many did, but my wife's parents are in Miami and she was worried about them.


Worry is something you have a lot of time for with hurricanes, though many Floridians chose not to do so if failure to prepare for the storm is a reliable indicator. With Wilma stalled and wreaking havoc in the Yucatan, you might have thought that all South Floridians would have filled empty milk jugs and soda bottles with enough water for at least a week or two. You would, of course, have been wrong though.


For me, hurricane aftermaths are more stressful than the hurricanes themselves, and the statistics back me up. Downed power lines, chain-saw accidents and fires that break out when power comes back to stoves that were in use, but not turned off when electricity was lost, will inevitably claim more victims than high winds and water. Personally, the most terrifying part of the Wilma experience was driving in post-Wilma Miami.


If you know what South Florida traffic is like on a good day, imagine downed trees and power poles everywhere and hundreds of thousands of cars searching, as soon as the storm clears, for ice, food, water, candles and batteries. In the first two days after Wilma passed, a significant percentage of the population of Miami Dade County apparently assumed that the absence of working red lights meant that they had perpetual right-of-way when crossing even the busiest intersections, and often at high speeds.


Surrealistically, radio stations aired constant announcements by authorities urging residents to stay home and off the roads, alternating with the addresses of locations where residents could go to pick up free ice and bottled water. Some of these drive-through lines took four or more hours to get through and many ran out of ice, turning indignant and impatient drivers away. I strongly suspect that, before power is restored to all South Florida, the death toll from traffic accidents involving people hunting for supplies they should have stockpiled before the storm will dwarf the dozen or so fatalities actually attributable to storm's direct effects.


One might assume that aftermath nights, at least, would be respites of calm, candle-lit peace. But they are worse.


One of those half-full glass things was that Wilma came so late in the season that we were spared the misery of stiflingly humid, subtropical summer nights with temperatures in un-air-conditioned homes in the 90s and higher. There's nothing quite like waking on bed covers drenched with perspiration.


The cold front that displaced Hurricane Wilma ought to have provided at least the relief of cool quiet nights with windows open to blessed autumn breezes. Instead, much of South Florida sounds now like an enormous Harley Davidson convention, with tens of thousands of gasoline-powered generators growling furiously day and night, torturing those already resentful of the few neighbors on every block with working televisions and refrigerators.


So, though Wilma was a true category 3 storm when it came on shore over Marco Island, as opposed to the cat 1 or 2 that it was when exiting the state on the other coast, we evacuated Miami and headed home to the Gulf Coast after only two days. The decision was not easy because phone calls to the West Coast weren't getting through and Miami radio stations seemed unaware of conditions outside their immediate neighborhoods. Using precious battery time on our rapidly failing cell phones, I called a friend in California who checked the web to find that the Gulf side was, at least, no worse than the Atlantic Coast.


So I packed up the SUV, which no longer seemed like such a needless macho conceit, and threaded our way through and over debris toward the exact spot where Wilma made landfall. Expecting scenes from the Yucatan or New Orleans, we were surprised to find conditions improving as we drove west on Tamiami Trail.


Arriving mid-afternoon on day two of the aftermath, we were astonished to find our apartment on Marco Island already had power and, within a few hours, water. Driving around the island resort community, where low-end home prices start at a half-million dollars, there were not the widespread downed and broken power poles that we had seen in Miami, though a few were leaning. Some signage was broken or blown away but, when we crossed the bridge onto Marco Island, there was little evidence that a storm had struck except fallen palm trees, many already cleared and piled for pick-up, and torn netting from the ubiquitous pool cages.


I do not mean to imply that the West Coast did not take damage, but it was far less obvious and the recovery has been significantly faster than it has been in Miami Dade and Broward Counties. As I write this, half of the East Coast is still suffering without electricity.


This difference in impacts between the two coasts is due to the fact that the west side of the state where the storm passed at its strongest is one of the newest and wealthiest communities in the United States. Much of Naples area was built beyond code to withstand hurricane winds and, for the most part, it did.


Bob Levy, the noted legal scholar who keeps a home in Washington D.C., chose to stay in his high rise condo on the beach just north of Naples. He wrote, in an e-mail shortly after the storm, that he had enjoyed, a "birds-eye view ... quite spectacular in a perverse sense.  We felt (and were) completely safe. Since then, I've been bike-riding ... to downtown Naples. Lots of landscape damage and malfunctioning lights, but not much serious structural damage that I can make out."


To be sure, there are pockets of damage and some of the older beachfront structures failed. There are still pockets in Naples without power or water, but life here is much better than it was on the East Coast of Florida where the vast majority of the storm damage occurred.


With power restored on most of Marco Island when we returned, most stores were open, well-stocked and uncrowded, as opposed to the long lines outside the few East Coast stores doing business. When I left Miami, there did not appear to be a D-cell battery or charcoal briquette left for sale in the entire area.


Bemused, I watched as a Red Cross disaster relief vehicle with New York plates parked outside a Marco Island souvenir and t-shirt shop while I picked up takeout from a really decent Chinese place, not Chef Chu's or the Hong Kong Flower Lounge mind you, but far better than the canned food and warm soda so many are eating on the other side of the state. I passed block after block on Marco Island where homes had no visible damage except for fallen palm trees and warped pool cages.


The next morning, however, transformers on power poles started blowing up and burning, and Marco Island lost power a second time. I mention this, by the way, only because the conditions that led to the noisy explosions demonstrate just how lucky Florida was.


Watching the winds howl from my in-laws' bunker of a home in Miami, we all noted that it was the first hurricane that we had ever seen -- and we have all seen so many of late -- in which it did not constantly rain. This created an odd situation on Marco Island because rainless gusts of winds, in excess of 150 miles an hour, whipped the surrounding salt water high into the air. Then, the briny coating was dried by the same winds and the process was repeated over and over until a layer of salt formed on everything close to the Gulf waters. In a normal storm, this kind of salt build-up would have been washed away by ensuing rains, but Wilma was not a normal storm.


When power came back on across Marco Island the first time, this was not yet a problem as conditions were sunny and dry -- beautiful in fact. The next morning, however, dew settled on the salt film and formed an exceptionally well-conducting liquid. Transformers atop power poles near the water began shorting, dramatically. Before electrical service could be re-established late that night, the local fire department took its trucks around the island, cleaning off the transformers with fire hoses.


My circuitous point is that Wilma was an exceptionally dry storm. If the hurricane had dropped a couple of feet of water across the width of Florida, the damage and problems would have been far, far worse.


Normally, a cat three storm produces a collision of draining rainwater with rising surge as sea levels rise in response to the piling up of seawater on the side of the eye where winds circulate forward. As the counterclockwise Wilma was moving east, the storm could have been truly disastrous for areas south of the center.


Though Everglades City, about fifteen miles south of the eye, was submerged by a storm surge more than five feet high, the worst case didn't happen for two reasons. As I've explained, there was very little rainwater. Secondly, Wilma's breakneck sprint across the Gulf of Mexico prevented the wind-blown surge that we saw as the storm lingered in the Yucatan. While many oceanside restaurants and docks were damaged, it is still true that we were amazingly lucky to have survived a category three hurricane with so little damage.


Rather than driving the point home that Florida barely avoided a far more serious disaster, especially on the West Coast, my impression is that Wilma has accomplished just the opposite -- convincing many that we are capable of taking a direct hit by a cat three without suffering catastrophic damage. Most Floridians, unfortunately, do not understand that the homes of five of the six million people who live in South Florida would be uninhabitable if not for ongoing flood control efforts. The evidence of this lack of understanding is that the majority of the state's residents support, or at least accept, efforts to cripple the systems that have made it possible for them even to live here.


We should be listening, intently, to University of Florida, Gainesville, Professor Daniel Canfield, one of the world's foremost experts on wetlands and flood control, who predicts that current environmental initiatives will guarantee even greater and more costly storm damage in the future. Canfield, an unabashed fan of wetlands and founder of one of Florida's most important environmental monitoring organizations, Florida LAKEWATCH, lists some of these conflicts:


* The draining down of Lake Okeechobee, South Florida's larger version of New Orleans' Lake Pontchartrain, in preparation for storms, is opposed by interest groups that believe fresh water releases harm coastal estuaries. A 1928 seiche, or fresh water storm surge, in Lake Okeechobee, killed more than 1,800 Floridians in an area that is far more densely populated today.


* Aquatic weed removal from canals, critical for preventing pump failures during storm flows, is being challenged by opponents of herbicide use. Similarly, environmental groups have sued to force Everglades authorities to acquire expensive, time-consuming EPA permits for even routine internal water transfers. This would seriously cripple Florida's hurricane flood prevention programs and guarantee massive property damage and loss of life.


* An arbitrary and scientifically criticized limit of 10 parts per billion phosphorous levels is being used, in conjunction with the Clean Water Act, to extend environmentalist control over upstream areas and halt additional flood prevention efforts, though evidence indicates that the 10 ppb standard is starving parts of the Everglades of needed nutrients.


* Most ominously, the Kissimmee River, which was channelized following the disastrous Orlando floods in the 1940s, is being restored to wetlands. The dismantling of this important flood control measure is indicative of a general amnesia, brought on by the long, tranquil phase in the region's hurricane cycle.


According to Canfield, it is only a matter of time before a category five hurricane hits Florida's East Coast and breaches the ten foot high sand ridge where the state's original settlements were located. "While Florida is above sea level, it is bowl-shaped, and a thirty foot wave could travel all the way across the Peninsula, taking months to remove and creating just as much damage as Katrina." Perhaps more worrisome, he says that, "three or four well-placed cat 3s could accomplish the same thing."


Can anything be done? Yes. More, deeper and better maintained canals, bigger and stronger levees, and more powerful and reliable pumps are all effective flood prevention strategies. Unfortunately, Wilma was almost a perfect parable in that it offered such a forceful warning to Florida, turning from a category two to a five in the space of only a few hours and then ravaging the Yucatan for days. If that were not enough to convince Floridians that they should stock food and water for at least a week, and it was not, it is pretty clear that many are not yet ready to deal with the fact that we have re-entered the peak of the Caribbean hurricane cycle and that Florida is extremely vulnerable. Politically, even state Republicans back environmental initiatives that will prove disastrous if we are, as experts insist, entering a twenty-year period of intense hurricane activity.


Lest non-Floridians think this is not also their problem, realize that natural disasters make socialists of us all. We have seen, in the last few months, the birth of a new and bizarre entitlement -- federally funded ice and water delivery even on the day after a major hurricane.


Somehow, the onus of preparing for storms has been shifted from individuals and local governments to the office of the president himself, and no one has seriously even suggested that areas hit by the many hurricanes these last two years not be restored at taxpayer expense. If Florida continues dismantling and undermining its flood control systems to accomplish poorly conceptualized environmental goals, serious hurricane damage will be inflicted on every corner of our country.




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