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Laugh, but I won't fool with hurricanes

By BILL MAXWELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 23, 2001


Donna was a husky lass,

Donna was a husky lass,

A lusty dame was she,

She kicked her heels and swirled her skirts,

And shrieked in fiendish glee.

She ripped at all our buildings,

Uprooted trees galore.

She took the Gulf of Mexico,

And flung it on the shore.

-- Excerpted from Donna, by W.R. "Plumb Bob" Wilson

* * *

I live on Coquina Key, and many of my neighbors laugh at me during hurricane season. They laugh because I become a scaredy-cat from June through November.

As a 55-year-old Fort Lauderdale native, I have experienced the fury of one of nature's meanest and least understood phenomena. Whether it's named for a male or a female, the hurricane is a killer.

On Sept. 16, 1945, one month before I was born, a hurricane struck the area and nearly scared my mother to death. She swears that she passed her fear of hurricanes on to me in the womb. On Oct 7, 1946, another storm swept South Florida. The same thing happened a year later in September, again in October, and did the same the next year. And in 1960, my family fled when Donna terrorized the Keys. Her winds tossed cars and mobile homes into the air; her waters knocked down bridges and washed out roads. Even conventional homes were pushed to new locations. I was living in Levy County when Elena pounded the coast. I ran from Floyd in 1987.

Need I mention Hurricane Andrew (Aug. 23-26, 1992)? Writing for the Gainesville Sun at the time, I remember the chilling sign -- "Damn you, Andrew" -- spray painted on the lone concrete block wall that was the last remaining piece of what had been a beautiful house in Homestead. Andrew destroyed a relative's home. The storm's estimated damage came to $30-billion.

The miracle was that Andrew did not not drift 15 miles northward. If it had, much of Miami would have disappeared. As it was, entire communities in Florida City and Homestead were wiped off the map. Some have not been rebuilt.

Two seasons ago, when authorities asked residents to evacuate Coquina Key, a flood zone, I drove to Gainesville. Well, the storm veered away. My neighbors did not evacuate and laughed at me. Let them laugh. In the end, the laugh will be on some of them. These people are from "somewhere else." They are not Floridians and most have not experienced a hurricane. They lack "hurricane culture" because they have no "hurricane memory."

"Fortunately, major hurricanes are rare events," said Neil Frank, former head of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. "They may occur only once in a generation. Some Florida residents may live their entire lives on the coast and never experience one. But when a major hurricane does come, residents had better be prepared. Floridians can learn from the past -- they don't have to wait to experience a hurricane firsthand. The expression that those who ignore history are condemned to relive it is certainly true of hurricanes."

William Gray, a University of Colorado atmospheric science professor, who predicts the number of storms each season, is less sanguine. During an address in Tampa the other day, he said, "We will see damage in Florida like we have never known."

Like Frank, Gray believes that too many residents take hurricanes and forecasts for granted. They tell Chicken Little jokes and guffaw each time the National Hurricane Center does not get it quite right.

At the same time, Florida's population more than doubled in many coastal communities during the last 40 years, making evacuation more perilous than ever. The Keys, for example, have one way out, narrow U.S. 1. Pinellas residents are at the mercy of bridges and crowded U.S. 19.

"The coast is a wonderful place to live, but it is vulnerable to the ravages of hurricanes," Frank said. "The price we pay to live there is that we evacuate when told to do so."

Let my neighbors laugh. During this time of year, I keep plenty of gas in my Blazer and extra drinking water on hand. I will evacuate when I am told to do so. You see, I remember Donna:

She blew her breath from North and East,

And gave us the eye.

And when she found we still were here,

She made another try.

From South and West she did her best,

A thorough job to make.

She passed with great reluctance,

Leaving havoc in her wake.

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