Tim Aten Knows: Hurricanes produce life-changing events

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Q: Tim, have you ever experienced anything like Hurricane Ian? — H.C., Naples  

A: Yes and no. While Hurricane Ian was the most massive storm surge event that catastrophically damaged Southwest Florida, I’ve encountered my fair share of terrifying hurricanes in the 30 years I’ve lived in Florida.  

Although Andrew and Ian bookend my hurricane history and were the largest weather events affecting my life, Wilma and Irma were both worse for me personally because my homes were damaged more by them. It’s just a matter of personal perspective. Although Hurricane Charley was also bad for our region, it didn’t personally affect me as much as the other four.  

Every hurricane is so different and affects people in different ways depending on where they are as the storm roars through. Each also teaches different lessons. Undoubtedly, major hurricanes are life-changing events that will never be forgotten.    

Hurricane Andrew  

Moving to Florida and the Keys in 1992, my first hurricane was Andrew, a name that still triggers anxiety for South Floridians old enough to remember the Category 5 monster that struck that late August. Andrew, of course, was the first named storm that year, amounting to baptism by fear for me and my family.  

The colorful weather map of Andrew, barreling west toward Miami and the Atlantic coast, depicted the record-setting hurricane much wider than the state and nearly as long. As Keys residents, we felt as if we were doomed, sitting ducks on the chain of islands stretching off the southern tip of Florida. We didn’t know then to worry more about the eye of the storm and the powerful eyewall than all the bright colors on the map spiraling counterclockwise around it.   

We evacuated and have second-guessed that decision ever since. It took us five hours that Sunday just to get out of the Keys in bumper-to-bumper traffic worse than the afternoon drive on Immokalee Road. We traveled north, crossing the path near Florida City and Homestead where Andrew would plow into the state that next morning. 

Anxious motorists fleeing the storm drove on the berm along the Florida Turnpike, which was still stopping traffic to collect tolls. Tolls eventually were suspended, something Andrew taught the state to initiate earlier in future evacuations.  

We hunkered down in a relative’s house to safely experience the storm from New Smyrna Beach the darkening sky to the south and the howling winds out over the Atlantic. After an uneasy night, we were ready to return home to the Lower Keys once Andrew crossed the state within four hours early that Monday afternoon and entered the Gulf as a Category 4 storm.  

On the drive south we heard on the car radio that the Keys were closed until the next day. We found a hotel on Fisher Island that had a vacant room. We stayed there overnight and worried about what we might see upon our return the next day.  

Our drive through Dade County was unbelievable. Every business along U.S. 1 from Burger King to Bloomingdale’s was destroyed. We saw an auto parts store missing an entire wall and people inside looting the shelves. People were waiting in long lines for ice. McDonald’s in Florida City was a makeshift outpost for the National Guard. We had to drive over all kinds of debris or around fallen trees that had yet to be cleared from the highway. Aluminum siding was wrapped around roadside signs and poles. Trees looked like shaved pencils. A trailer park in Homestead was gone. 

After we got through the Keys checkpoint, everything was cleaner and greener and hardly anyone was on the roads. It was paradise. We didn’t even lose a coconut from our trees on Big Pine Key. The main damage to the Keys was on its initial 18-mile stretch from the mainland. Of course, we still had months of brownouts and other issues that inundated our lives for quite some time.   

After barreling through Dade, Andrew cut through the Everglades and Collier County on the way to the Gulf. Storm surge flooded low-lying areas, especially in Everglades City, Goodland and Marco Island, and the high winds and rain caused power outages and about $30 million in property damage throughout Collier communities.  

That storm, the costliest on record in the United States at that time, altered hurricane preparedness and reformed building codes in the Sunshine State, while its destruction of a Burmese python breeding facility in south Dade allowed giant snakes to escape into the Everglades. The impact of Andrew remains unforgettable. 

In this file photo, this National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration color-enhanced satellite image, the center of Hurricane Wilma comes ashore at Cape Romano, Fla., at about 6:30 a.m., Monday, Oct. 24, 2005, as a Category 3 storm with sustained winds measured at 125 mph. (AP Photo/NOAA)

Hurricane Wilma  

In late October 2005, Hurricane Wilma reached Category 5 status but fortunately was downgraded to a Cat 3 before making landfall with 120-mph winds near Cape Romano on Collier’s coast and quickly cut a northeastern path through the county. Wilma, which caused $26.2 billion in total damage and contributed to 35 casualties, was one of four billion-dollar hurricane events in 2005, one of the most active seasons in history. Wilma followed three other Cat 5 storms — Emily, Katrina and Rita — in a record year that ran out of hurricane names and resorted to the Greek alphabet for the names of the last six storms, including Hurricane Epsilon in December and Tropical Storm Zeta in January.  

So, in a year proving that hurricane season does not always end on Nov. 30, Hurricane Wilma broke records for the strongest storm in the Atlantic Ocean and was also the first W-named storm in the Atlantic since naming began in 1950.  

Wilma was especially terrifying for me and my family because it was the first storm that came relatively near our East Naples home at the time. It was personally notable because it caused the most damage to my house, the first home I owned. It needed a new shingle roof and other repairs after Wilma.  

It also was the first hurricane, and hopefully the last, where I boarded up my windows and doors with plywood. The job took a lot longer than expected because I burned through many concrete drill bits. My nephew and I finished the arduous task just as darkness fell and the rain and wind started. It was mentally and physically exhausting but gratifying. We created a fortress that held up through a storm that really gave us a beating that night and next morning. After Wilma, we wisely filled all those stucco holes and bought hurricane shutters.   

We lost power for about a week after Wilma, but we had a small generator with enough power to operate a refrigerator, fan, and TV. We cooked on a propane grill with a side burner that proved handy to boil water for coffee, a morning necessity. We’ve always had grills with side burners since then.  

Hurricane Irma  

Five years ago this year, another major hurricane made landfall in Collier County. After causing record-breaking devastation as a Category 5 storm, Hurricane Irma crossed the Florida Keys as a Cat 4 storm on a Sunday morning before directly striking the mainland at Marco Island as a Cat 3 storm the afternoon of Sept. 10, 2017. Considered the climatological peak of the Atlantic hurricane season, Sept. 10 also is the date Hurricane Donna destroyed Naples with a similar path in 1960.   

Hurricane Irma especially devastated Everglades City and set records for its intensity, strength and financial cost as well as being the term with the most Google searches in 2017. Irma followed Harvey and preceded Maria, making that year the costliest hurricane season on record with more than $280 billion in damage and 3,167 deaths.  

After affixing aluminum hurricane shutters to our two-story house in Orangetree, my family would not be home when Irma hit. So that I could stay behind to help cover the historic storm, I took both of our cats in carriers to stay with me for the next 10 days in the daily newspaper building, built to withstand Cat 4 winds. My family joined the long line of evacuees driving north to leave the state.  

It’s always a bit harrowing to evacuate because you don’t know what to expect, especially what you’ll find upon returning. But it’s also nerve-racking to stay if you’re in harm’s way. Deciding to stay or go can be tortuous, especially when personal experiences sway you in either direction.  

It wasn’t until five days after the storm that I was able to return home to see the damage to our home, trees, and pool cage. We were without power for more than a week and it would be weeks later until my family returned from staying with relatives in Ohio.  

Irma’s extensive damage was widespread, affecting everyone in the area. Debris, especially huge piles of downed trees, was an issue for months. The storm damaged the western end of the Naples Pier, which remained closed for more than a year. Five years later, Hurricane Ian damaged the pier even worse. 

Hurricane Ian  

A devastating powerful Category 4 storm, Hurricane Ian most likely will be upgraded to a Cat 5 event, historically like what occurred with Hurricane Andrew, which was upgraded to a 165-mph storm on its 10th anniversary 20 years ago. Ian’s wind speeds were clocked at an estimated155 mph; the Cat 5 classification starts at 157 mph.  

This point is representative of the failure of science to accurately measure hurricanes, let alone precisely predict them. Ian’s unpredictable path before landfall and its devastating storm surge are its legacy and biggest lessons.  

We have learned to respect the breadth of the cone of probability and not just watch its centerline when preparing for an approaching storm. Residents, especially those living along the coast, have a personal responsibility to be aware of impending tropical events and decide how to best protect their properties and families. While the government pledges to safeguard its citizens’ health, safety, and welfare, we don’t need an official proclamation to tell us whether it’s a good day to play golf or go to the beach. We have a personal responsibility to monitor the weather, especially during hurricane season.  

Ian reminded me of the need to heed the advice I learned 30 years ago about hurricanes: Be prepared. I used to have a bin filled with a weather radio, battery-powered lanterns, batteries, candles, a first-aid kit, rain ponchos and other supplies. It got depleted over the years and eventually forgotten. I vow to do more than just pick up WINK’s annual hurricane guide at Publix; I’ll actually look at it and reassemble my storm supplies.  

I don’t want to be caught off guard again so I will keep my propane tanks and gas cans filled during hurricane season. Area newcomers, trained well from the pandemic, sprang into action last month and emptied shelves and sapped supplies while I was still in watch mode. That newbie panic is often derided during hurricane prep but perhaps storm veterans learned that they don’t know it all and haven’t seen it all.  

Nobody had seen a water event quite like Ian. Warnings for years and years about local storm surge that didn’t happen could have caused coastal complacency. Maybe Ian was a 500-year flood event that we will not experience again in our lifetime, but we’ll never be sure of that.  

What we can be sure of is that life goes on. That was surprisingly apparent the day Ian hit when I received a news alert on my phone that New York Yankees’ Aaron Judge hit his 61st home run this season to tie an American League record set more than six decades ago by Roger Maris. Then, Judge surpassed that record this week. The realization that life was going on as normal elsewhere expanded my thoughts beyond our local bubble as we cope with a disaster of historical proportions. We truly are in our own little world even though our news event is reaching people worldwide. 

We will come to grips with this catastrophe, learn how to recover from it and how to better prepare for the next threat. Lessons from hurricanes are not always easy to learn but they’re mentally tucked away for possible future use because there’s always another possibility.  

That possibility, following decades of devastation, prompts friends, family, and former colleagues to ask why I continue to live in Florida. The answer comes easy. This is my home. I can’t imagine a better place to be. 

To borrow a marketing slogan from the Collier County Convention & Visitors Bureau, “Only Paradise Will Do.” It’s certainly true. While decimated parts of Southwest Florida are more hellish than paradisiacal now, of course, that will change in time. Hang in there.    

“Tim Aten Knows,” a column answering local questions from readers, is published every Friday at GulfshoreBusiness.com. Follow Tim Aten on social media: @TimAtenKnows on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter. 

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