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Hurricanes wear us out, even when they fail to strike

Published October 25, 2005

By midmorning the sun had come out. Though wind still whipped the trees and the streets were littered with palm fronds, a sense of relief and even renewal was in the air. For our part of Florida, Hurricane Wilma proved to be several days of worry and one windy, rainy night.

The storm crossed South Florida not too far from where they said it would, although Miami got a worse beating than expected, and Palm Beach got slapped again by the back side of the spiral after the eye had crossed the peninsula and rolled out into the Atlantic.

Really, the accuracy of the forecast track was impressive from the get-go. Even before the storm reached the Yucatan, where it sat atop the land and beat the people down, the maps all showed a sharp turn to the east that would send the storm across Florida's southern tip. Katrina in reverse.

Maybe this accuracy is a bad thing for our complacency. Just a nudge coming around Cuba for a few crucial degrees would have sent a Category 3 storm up the mouth of Tampa Bay with about one full day's notice. So, dutifully, some of us tried to obey the instructions not to pay attention to the center line of the path and to be mindful of the northern edge of the cone, not too far south of Tampa Bay. But they keep putting that center line in there, and this one turned out to be close enough.

There are five weeks left in the hurricane season.

Even then, how does Nature know that we are labeling one day Nov. 30 and the next Dec. 1, so that it is time to knock off? We already are into the Greek alphabet for the first time; Beta is on deck and Gamma is in the hole. I cannot imagine a worse indignity than being taken out by Hurricane Epsilon. Hurricane Theta, I guess.

Wilma was pursued across the state by cooler air, which made Monday's transition all the more dramatic. At dawn the wind was driving sheets of rain across the pavement; three hours later the trailing, western edge of the weather had moved inland and the sun smiled on a band of cooler, clean air north to south along the Suncoast. It was in the 50s in Citrus County, as it will be everywhere this morning.

And so the first break in the weather signaling Florida autumn, an occurrence that had crept noticeably and maddeningly later and later into November in recent years, was restored properly to October. There will be less sweating in Halloween costumes this year, and lows in the 50s for the coming days. All it took was the price of a hurricane.

Not that our friends in South Florida would think it worth that price - not they, but even more so, not the people of the Yucatan and Cozumel, who sat unimaginably beneath the maelstrom for a day. They are the New Orleans of this storm, not Florida; Florida got the weak-sister, watered-down version, and even that was a Category 3. And we were lucky.

Despite the shooting-gallery year we went through in 2004, and the alphabet-busting season of 2005, despite all the science and explanation of long-term cycles, this still has a harsh new feel to it.

The planet has changed the rules, and this is how we must live. I wonder if the 24-hour electronic universe will sustain this ritual indefinitely, the endless days of anticipation and the ritual of landfall, the reporters excitedly shouting into microphones and showing how they can lean into the wind. The modern hurricane experience for most people is not as much the storm, as it is stressing out from watching television.

It wears you down. Interestingly, only a fraction of the residents of the Florida Keys obeyed the evacuation, their fourth of the year. No doubt their survival justifies the decision in their minds. There is no use pointing out that their survival was entirely a matter of the whim of Nature, and that on another day, Nature could decide to scour them from the face of the earth.

But then, so could it for all of us, and it seems a little presumptuous for Tampa Bay or Tallahassee to harrumph at Key West, when we all have chosen to inhabit a spit of sand that has become newly fixed in the sights of the storm gods. Frankly, it is getting tiresome; without a timely nip in the air, it would be unbearable.

[Last modified October 25, 2005, 03:00:29]

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