tampabay.com

Living a lesson

As four storms battered the state last year, Floridians from Key West to Panama City got an upclose reminder of the destructive power of hurricanes.

By JUDY STARK
Published April 17, 2005


Four times in 45 days last summer, Mike and Susie Kennedy of St. Petersburg boarded up their home's windows with sheets of plywood.

"We got the process down to an hour and a half for the whole house, but it was a painful hour and a half," Susie Kennedy said recently, recalling how the couple battened down their home for the march of destruction wrought by hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne.

When hurricane season 2005 ended, the couple had had enough of wrangling with heavy, awkward plywood. This spring they had aluminum shutters installed over the dining-room window on the front of their home (pictured on the front of this section) and over the 56 feet of windows at the back, where the master bedroom and sunroom overlook the channel leading to Maximo Marina.

The couple wanted something they could install quickly when a storm looms and that one person could handle alone.

The Kennedys are typical of homeowners across Florida who have kept window protection suppliers' phones ringing nonstop since Aug. 14, the morning after Hurricane Charley pounded Punta Gorda and pummeled the state's midsection.

That's good, hurricane experts say. They're glad Floridians have learned the lessons of last hurricane season and are taking advantage of this off-season time to prepare. This special section offers Floridians suggestions on how to prepare themselves and their homes for the storm season that starts June 1.

"We could be open 24 hours a day and not take care of the clientele," Dean R. Dusenbery of ASI Building Products in Tampa said of the booming business.

Suppliers say the huge demand, coupled with shortages of materials and lack of installers, mean a wait of eight to 12 weeks will be common this summer, pushing installation well into storm season.

"If even one named storm heads close to here and we have a repeat of last year, companies are so far behind right now, they'll be hard pressed to get anything done," said Mike Graham, general manager of Stanek Windows in St. Petersburg. "If they wait and make the decision from June through November, they're not going to be able to protect themselves until next hurricane season" - in 2006.

Shutter suppliers attribute the short supplies, long waits and increased prices to several factors:

-- Huge demand after last summer's four hurricanes.

-- Competition for products and materials - from the remodeling industry seeking to repair last summer's damage, and from the white-hot home building industry, which is swallowing up aluminum gutters, down spouts, pool cages, roofing and siding for new construction.

-- Demand from China for building products.

-- Lack of excess manufacturing capacity for aluminum coil, from which window panels and building components are manufactured.

-- Rising energy costs. Besides making a fillup at the pump more expensive, they drive up the price of petroleum products such as clear Lexan and PVC panels. Retailers report price increases ranging from 7 to 25 percent depending on the product.

Powerful truths

The second of last summer's four hurricanes, Frances, blew down two majestic oaks (narrowly missing the pool cage) and a dogwood at John Bellacosa's home in the Silverthorne development in central Hernando County. The place looked like a logging camp, he said.

This year Bellacosa is taking no chances. "Thirty trees are gone," he said of his off-season home protection project to remove trees that might threaten his home next time. The take-downs included two 60-foot pines that stood within 15 feet of his home. "We don't have anything close to the house now."

The importance of eliminating potential sources of hurricane damage is one lesson the four hurricanes taught Floridians last year. There are others:

-- Hurricanes are powerful and destructive. With Hurricane Andrew a memory 13 years old - or no memory at all for the 4-million Floridians who weren't here in 1992 - it was easy to forget, or to underestimate, a hurricane's destructive force. Total damage from last summer's four storms: $20-billion.

-- Everyone is at risk. The west coast is just as vulnerable as South Florida, and the state's interior is no safe haven. Many who evacuated to Orlando to avoid hurricanes that seemed headed for the coasts simply met the storms when they tore inland.

-- Everyone needs to prepare early and stay prepared all season long. There were long lines and short tempers week after week as Floridians scrambled to buy plywood, bottled water, generators and grills. The back-to-back storms took a big physical and emotional toll. By the time Jeanne struck on Sept. 26, Floridians were exhausted. Weary or not, Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said, "They must treat this hurricane as if it's the only hurricane they've ever been through."

-- The recovery is never-ending. Power remained out for days or weeks in some areas. The wait for roofers, remodelers and insurance settlements has lasted months.

"Last season shook people to the core," said Russ Bohen of Home Safety Solutions in Palm Harbor, who sells a wide range of window protection. "The people who come in are not your new people. It's people who have lived here 10, 20, 30 years. ... They used to think they could appease the hurricane gods by just thinking about protecting their homes. Now they think the gods will get mad at them this year if they don't do something."

New, and old, issues

Industry experts gathered in late March at the National Hurricane Conference in New Orleans to reflect on lessons learned from last season and look ahead. Among the participants was Leslie Chapman-Henderson, president of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes in Tallahassee, an alliance of the insurance industry, business and nonprofit groups.

She reported these trend lines out of the conference:

-- Shutter deployment. Some winter residents complain that their community associations won't allow them to install shutters when they leave in spring out of concern about appearances and the potential for crime at what is clearly an unoccupied residence. "We're watching this. It's becoming a contentious issue," she said. The response has been to say that it's a local issue that needs to be resolved locally, she said, and should be regarded the same way winter residents handle lawn care in their absence. "It's part of the care and feeding of a second residence."

-- The unending need for back-to-basics education. No, masking tape will not protect your windows. No, window film is not impact-resistant. No, you shouldn't crack your windows on one side of the house or the other. "There are a lot of urban myths out there about what to do and we need to get rid of them," she said.

-- The need to emphasize sheltering in place. As soon as the storm warnings go up, Chapman-Henderson said, adult children fly in from up North to take care of Mom and Dad in Sun City Center or Miami. Residents of the Caribbean evacuate to Florida. The result: jammed hotels and highways. "People have got to have the option to shelter in place and to know the limitations of that home," she said: What kind of window protection does the home have? What is the roof's capacity to withstand upload? What else do residents need to do to stay in their homes?

-- The 72-hour window: One of the biggest lessons learned last year was that residents should "create 72 hours' worth of ability and sustainability," she said: food, water, ice, "every other essential they need." It may take days for electricity to come back on, for stores and services to be restored and some semblance of normality to return.

That includes filling up the gas tank. Remember the great gas shortage during Hurricane Frances in early September? Fuel was temporarily in short supply because ships transporting gas were unable to dock at Florida ports in high wind and rain. Even the rumor of shortages led to long lines at the pumps (which led to shortages) and some people were driving around in a Category 2 hurricane trying to find an open gas station.

"One issue we won't face this season is hurricane amnesia," Chapman-Henderson said. "We'd like for people to take that awareness and turn it into action now so when June comes around, they're ready."

-- Information from Times files was used in this report, to which Times correspondent Beth N. Gray contributed.

To learn more

Visit the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes Web site at www.flash.org for animated hurricane preparation how-tos, a list of links to other helpful sites, and a video, "A Tale of Two Houses," about two homes in the Punta Gorda area, one built to the 2002 codes and barely damaged by Charley, the other an older home that sustained massive damage.