The following excerpt is from the book Florida's Hurricane History,
by Jay Barnes. Copyright 2007 The University of North Carolina Press. Reproduction in any form is prohibited
without the express permission of the Press.
When Florida's Hurricane History was first published in 1998, it was clear that
Hurricane Andrew was the measuring stick by which modern U.S. hurricane
disasters should be compared. Its impact on South Florida in August 1992
not only astounded seasoned weather watchers and broke numerous records
for destruction but also focused national attention on the monumental challenges we face in responding to and recovering from large-scale disasters.
It was a metro-catastrophe. The onslaught of category 5 winds over a semiurban landscape was followed by an unprecedented and complex cleanup and
recovery effort that at times was also rather stormy. Following Andrew, our
understanding of the social, political, environmental, and economic aspects
of disaster recovery was forever changed. "Emergency management" became
a buzzword and federal and state politicians poured new money into mitigation and response programs as, rather suddenly, Andrew spawned a newfound
respect for the awesome destructive forces of hurricanes.
No one knows which portion of Florida will be the next
to fall victim to a powerful and destructive hurricane.
Today, almost fifteen years later, the Andrew experience seems to have
faded into history as more recent destructive hurricanes have captured our
full attention. Through the 2004 and 2005 seasons, warmer-than-normal sea-surface temperatures and other global weather factors turned the waters of
the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico into a cyclone machine, cranking out potent hurricanes as fast as forecasters could track them. These were
record-setting years in which each successive storm seemed to top the one
before. Four barreled through Florida in 2004 and hit almost every corner of
the state. And, of course, Hurricane Katrina topped them all in 2005 when it
slammed into Louisiana and Mississippi, flooded New Orleans, and became
the most destructive disaster of any kind in U.S. history. By the time Wilma
struck in October, Florida had been pummeled by seven hurricanes in only
fourteen months. Five of those seven were major hurricanes, category 3 or
greater. It was a flurry of activity never before seen since record keeping began
in the mid-1800s.
It is unlikely that the flurry has ended. The Sunshine State remains vulnerable to more deadly and destructive hurricanes, especially since forecasters
believe that active hurricane seasons may continue for years to come. Sooner
or later, another big storm will make landfall. Atmospheric scientists and
emergency planners agree that it's just a matter of time before some portion
of Florida is hit by another one. Perhaps it will be a category 4 like Charley
or even a category 5 like Andrew. It could strike this year or next year, or it
could come thirty or more years in the future. It could land in downtown
Miami, track across Tampa Bay, or even pass right over Jacksonville. No one
knows when or where it will strike, but we do know that eventually it will blast
ashore somewhere and cause massive destruction—perhaps even greater than
that caused by Katrina. Since there is nothing anyone can do to alter that
foreboding reality, the question is: Are we ready for the next great hurricane?
Through the many hurricane disasters that have struck
Florida in recent years, legions of volunteers have made
a tremendous difference in the hardest-hit regions. Volunteers
traveled from other states and countries to offer aid to
those in need. (Photo courtesy of FEMA)
Since Andrew, we have entered a new era in hurricane disaster management — the organized effort to prepare for and recover from major hurricanes.
With every storm, hard lessons are learned, operational plans are tweaked,
and new initiatives are put to the test. Coordination and communication between various agencies on the federal, state, and local levels have improved
substantially in recent years, despite the meltdown so widely reported in New
Orleans following Katrina. Governments have pumped billions of dollars into
relief efforts, but significant resources have also been funneled into emergency
planning to better equip and train personnel and reduce the impact of future storms.
Although a few breakdowns in coordination occurred along the way,
Florida's overall response to the string of storms in 2004 and 2005 was well
planned and effective. Never before had the state's emergency planners been
tested by so many major disasters over such an extended period. From Charley
in August 2004 through Wilma in October 2005, the network of local, state,
and federal agencies that deal with disaster response and recovery never got a
break. FEMA and its partners on the federal level never left the state. Nonprofit
organizations like the Salvation Army and the American Red Cross brought
in volunteers from across the nation who fanned out over Florida to help meet
immediate needs. Countless church groups, civic clubs, and other nongovernmental organizations also came to rebuild homes, help with repairs, and pro-
vide other general support.
Clyde Avenue resident Charles Wolf was distraught
after Hurricane Charley destroyed his family's mobile
home. The Punta Gorda resident was forced to live under
a tarp next to the pile of rubble that used to be his trailer.
(From Direct Hit, photo by Sarah Coward, courtesy of the Charlotte Sun)
We will rely on the forecasters at the National Hurricane Center to warn
us when the next great hurricane heads toward the Florida coast. Technological advancements have given meteorologists better tools for analyzing storm
movements, and forecasts have become much more accurate over the last
several decades. Computer models used to predict hurricane landfalls have
improved, and the implementation of new programs like the use of a Gulf
Stream IV jet for high-altitude reconnaissance has enhanced the Hurricane
Center's capabilities. The center is in a state-of-the-art facility in Miami and
has earned a reputation for issuing timely, life-saving warnings to those facing
an approaching storm. But as demonstrated with Hurricane Charley in 2004,
predicting exactly when and where a hurricane will strike and how strong it
will be remains an elusive goal.
For many reasons, Florida remains vulnerable to the next great hurricane.
Because of its large coastal population, continuing growth, heavily developed
barrier beaches, and limited arteries for evacuating traffic, large numbers of
residents and tourists could find themselves trapped within the core of the
next major storm. Every year, as the state's population grows, the problem becomes larger. Evacuation studies in recent years, combined with observations
from recent storms, have depicted dire scenarios. Out of a total population
of more than 18 million, the number of Floridians vulnerable to storm surge
(and mobile home residents vulnerable to wind) is estimated at over 8 million.
A liquor store in Port Charlotte was one of many businesses
that were totally destroyed by Hurricane Charley. (Photo by
Mario Tama, courtesy of Getty Images)
No one can say exactly when the Florida coast will be hit by the next great
storm. Most people generally accept the risk, just as midwesterners accept
tornadoes and Californians live with earthquakes. Vast improvements have
been made in hurricane forecasting, warning, communications, and recovery, but Florida still remains vulnerable. The problems faced by the state today are rooted in meteorology, geology, economics, and population. Evacua-
tions are a grave concern because even when the best information is available,
human nature sometimes causes us to wait to do something until it's absolutely necessary. But common sense is the ultimate weapon against the hur-
ricane threat, and well-prepared coastal residents know that lost property is
replaceable whereas lost lives are gone forever. If a major hurricane threatens,
they pack their cars and secure their plans to escape the approaching storm.
They know that sooner or later, the big one will come.
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