I’d been back in Florida for all of four months. My dog Jack and I sat huddled on the couch riveted to the TV as Hurricane Charley roared onto south Florida. Ten years out of Florida, living in Los Angeles, New York, touring the country, and my first trip to France changed my perception of the world, myself, and how I fit into it all. America’s larger metropolitan areas thrilled me. Culturally, Europe fed my soul and left me hungry for more. My hometown of Orlando? Not so much.
While I was away, Orlando had grown in ways I hadn’t expected. Gone were the early morning and late afternoon trickles of bumper-to-bumper congestion. The new round-the-clock rush hour traffic evidenced The City Beautiful’s population explosion. The sleepy little downtown blossomed into a bustling mix of gleaming high-rise condos, business, bars, and nightclubs to shame George Bailey’s worst visions of Pottersville. As far as the eye could see, bedroom communities blanketed what used to be rolling hills of orange groves. And the tourism industry ballooned with dozens of new resort hotel, west coast restaurants dotted the new upscale International Drive extension (think Las Vegas strip), and the theme parks all boasted new land, attractions, and entertainment.
You Guys Feeding Those Hurricanes Steroids or What?
In honor of my prodigal return, the Sunshine State welcomed me back with a trio of hurricanes between August 13 and September 25. Charley was originally a weak Category 2 storm that few suspected would touch Florida — until a pressure ridge condensed the storm’s eye and winds. Next thing we knew, Charley the Little Storm That Wouldn’t morphed into a Category 4 hurricane with 145 mile-per-hour sustained winds and barreled up the middle of the state. This was my first Category 4 hurricane.
After sitting through the storm with my dog in my modest wood-frame apartment and listening to all sorts of creaks and groans as Charley roared over Orlando, a maxim came to mind: you can’t go home again. You should never go home again.
Three weeks later, Frances, a Category 2 hurricane, came ashore on the state’s east coast near Palm Beach. The governor ordered the mandatory coastal evacuation of 500,000 people. For that storm, my dog and I rode it out at my mom’s forty-year-old cinderblock home. Riding out that hurricane in a super sturdy structure that had withstood numerous storms was a lot more tolerable, even with a twenty-four-hour lapse in power.
And three weeks after Frances, Jeanne, one of the deadliest Atlantic hurricanes ever (causing over 3,000 deaths between Haiti, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and the United States), made landfall in roughly the same area as Frances and cut diagonal across the state, almost the mirror image of Charley’s path.
Orlando sits just north of the middle of the peninsula, an hour from the Atlantic coast and an hour and a half from the Gulf coast. Hurricanes draw their strength from the ocean’s warm waters and weaken on land. If a storm makes landfall on the state’s southern half before it reaches Orlando, traversing the state lengthwise reduces a storm’s intensity considerably. Since Florida is much narrower than it is long, if the hurricane’s projected track is due east or west, it’ll still pack a big punch as it’ll able to draw strength from the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico.
A Cruel Trick of Nature
With the onset of a hurricane, gray cloud cover ushered in on increasingly strong winds replace blue skies and the state’s signature puffy white clouds. This change of backdrop is followed closely by feeder bands. Feeder bands, you ask? Think propeller blades of strong wind and rain spinning counter-clockwise. These bands increase in duration and intensity the closer you get to the center of the storm. As an additional feature for your increased terror, feeder bands can and do drop tornadoes faster than you can say, “It’s a twister, Auntie Em!”
You’ve heard of that song, “Eye of the Tiger,” from Rocky III, right? Well, that has nothing to do with this. Well, forget that. Next, I’m going to discuss the fabled eye of the storm. You’ve heard of that, right? Well, that’s a thing. A real thing. It’s the center of the storm. If you were to travel across a hurricane, before you get to the eye, you have to pass through the eyewall. That’s the most dangerous part of the storm where the winds are the strongest as they’re spinning the fastest.
Once you break through the eyewall, you reach the centermost part of the storm, the eye. In the eye, everything is perfectly calm, with no winds, no clouds, nothing — easy, peasy, blue skies, and rainbows, from the land (or sea) to the top of the storm’s clouds. Intense hurricanes have a distinct eye that’s visible from satellites. The smaller and more clearly defined a hurricane’s eye, the more concentrated the winds and the more powerful the storm. From the ground, if the eye passes over you, it’s easy to think the storm has passed. Because you’ve made it through the toughest part of the storm, it’s all sunny and bright, and you may be surrounded by a coliseum of clouds, but . . .
Remember, hurricanes are round. The eye is like Mother Nature’s intermission before the second act of the storm kicks in. Cruel joke, right? In reality, only half the storm has passed. There’s still the whole other side of the eyewall to survive along with the hurricane’s second act. It’s never a good idea to go outside during the eye of a hurricane because if you’re out there when the eyewall arrives or leaves, anything outside can become a missile. Remember: strongest winds are where? In the eyewall. Plus, you don’t want to miss those first act terrors, do you?
Mother Nature is One Tough Mother
My realization that Mother Nature is one tough mother occurred when I was about six years old. While we were in church, I remember hearing what sounded like a freight train roaring by. On the drive home, we passed a chilling sight: a two-story apartment building with its roof completely ripped off and sunlight streaming through all the open-air units, windows blown out, and a mix of people’s belongings and debris strewn everywhere. I learned a tornado had touched down and cleared a path of destruction for about a mile.
Probably nothing rattles my soul more than howling winds in excess of a hundred miles per hour coupled with pounding rains. Well . . . nothing except maybe listening to today’s meteorologists’ hurricane forecasts and play-by-play weather-casts. Back in the day, I remember weathermen on our black and white TV calmly in their suits, skinny ties, and thick black eyeglasses, instructing viewers to have food and water onhand and board-up windows and doors. That was it. Back then, Florida was inhabited mainly by those born in the state who had lived through a few hurricanes and instinctively knew the requisite preparations and precautions to take. No fuss. No muss. And that’s the way I remembered it when I moved to California.
Bigger is Not Always Better
By my return in 2004, the population, traffic, and tourism industries weren’t the only things that changed. The whole game changed. As storms increased in size, intensity, and the amount of destruction they left in their wakes, weather science and technology advanced exponentially and put far more data at meteorologists’ disposal than they ever had before. And weathermen ate it up with a spoon. Now don’t get me wrong, given how patently lackadaisical (effing stupid) people can choose to be at the most inopportune times, but I guess it’s a good thing weathermen slathered emotional fervor all over their advisories, but still . . .
Tom Terry, a new local weatherman at the time, gained major street cred when he called the change in Charley’s track long before everyone else. Given the storm’s revised Category 4 status and a projected collision course with Orlando, the time for calm advisories was over and admonitions riddled with words to instill fear and call viewers to take immediate action were in. Benign phrasing like Hurricane Charley is expected to make landfall in two hours. Take all necessary precautions . . . was replaced with Charley is going to slam into Florida in two hours. All the precautions you haven’t taken by now—forget ’em. Charley will be knocking down your front door to kick some butt. Tom never yelled or raised his voice, but rolling up those shirt sleeves, his anthropomorphism of a weather phenomenon, and a deliberate stream of consciousness about the why and how the storm might stomp viewers out took my anxiety and knowledge about weather to a whole new level.
And it’s been that way, ever since. I’m sure there’s bunches of people who are still around because his admonitions.
Fifteen years after the summer of the unholy Trinity of Charley, Frances, and Jeanne, I’m hunkered down for another hurricane: Dorian. Fact is, just about everyone in central and south Florida had a week to prepare for this hurricane. This storm was originally forecast to make landfall near West Palm Beach on Sunday, September 1, and its projected north northwest path put it southwest of Orlando. Not good. That set Orlando on the bad side of the storm. Granted, there is no “good” side to a hurricane, but the right side of the storm relative to its forward motion is always the bad or dirty side.
Foundational level of anxiety: check.
Add to that the local weathermen’s preemptive calls for preparation—enough food and water for five days, nonperishables, perishables, ice, plywood for windows, nailgun, power screwdrivers, nails, screws, hammers, Red Bull, generators, fuel for the generators, gas for your car, batteries, flashlights, more food, and beer just in case we’re entering The Last Days—the stress is high.
And then you simply wait.
What’s the latest track? It shifted? Good.
Six hours later . . .
Further away? Great! We just might make it. [Exhale.]
And you wait some more . . .
Oh, it shifted again? It’s coming this way?! Shit, we’re gonna die. Did I get enough beer?
People like to pretend hurricane prep is no big deal, but there’s no denying it. It is. Constantly pushing recurring thoughts of not inevitable but potential devastation, if not total annihilation, is exhausting. You may think I’m being melodramatic (in once sense I’m doing that for the sake of the story), but in reality when you look at the Saffir-Simpson Scale and take in the potential damage, you quickly realize hurricanes are no joke.
Well, Dorian was a little late for the party. There was a lot of trepidation about it hitting Puerto Rico, which was still in a bit of a shambles from Hurricane Maria two years ago. Dorian increased in strength to a Category 5 storm, bypassed Puerto Rico, and instead sat still over Grand Bahama and Abaco Islands for two whole days.
By now you’ve probably seen the damage wrought by Dorian. Enduring a couple of hours of a Category 2 storm is enough to instill a healthy fear of hurricanes, but what the people of Grand Bahama and Abaco Islands have endured is unfathomable. And to see the devastation . . . there are no words. Hopefully, the global humanitarian response will be immediate, substantial, and longterm. It’s completely overwhelming.
At the time of this writing, Dorian (or rather the eye of the hurricane) was about a hundred miles off from Cape Canaveral, about fifty miles from Orlando. Scores of utility workers are stationed at Daytona Beach to assist in restoring power and Tom Terry and the gang are buzzing away on the TV. The storm has been downgraded to a Category 2 hurricane which means maybe seventy-mile-per-hour winds and rain for the coast and looking outside a steady but light rain falls on gentle breezes. All in all, things are well here. No downed trees, no power loss, no inconveniences for my corner of the City Beautiful. This time.
Depending on How You See a Thing
It’s strange how things have changed from when I was a kid to how I see them now as an adult. My world was so much smaller as a kid, but it seemed so much larger. Sad the same can’t be said for hurricanes. Can you imagine?
I guess when all is said and done, life isn’t about things staying the same. We all grow and the world around us grows. Like the late screenwriting guru Blake Snyder said, stasis equals death. Things can never stay the same. Life is about growing and changing, facing challenges head-on, making the best of them, helping others, and hopefully picking up a little wisdom along the way. If there’s no growth, there’s no life.
Oh, look. The National Hurricane Center tweeted that the tropical disturbance out in the Atlantic has been officially upgraded. Here we go again.
Love one another.
Dedicated to all those in meteorology and the news media who make our lives safer. Thank you.