The “Greatest Storms on Earth” – Part VIII
If you are the least bit superstitious, then 2010 is not a good year. Not only is it the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Wilma, which was the last hurricane to make landfall in Collier County; but also it is the fiftieth anniversary of Hurricane Donna, whose impact in a lightly populated Collier County is still legendary. In addition, 2010 is also the seventy-fifth anniversary of the devastating Category 5 Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, which still rates as the most powerful storm to ever hit the U.S., and which passed just off the coast of Southwest Florida. Lastly, 2010 is the one hundredth anniversary of the 1910 Hurricane, a Category 4 in power, which was a direct hit on Marco Island, devastating the agricultural and fishing industries of that time. So, even if 2010 is not the year for the “Big One,” ask yourself how prepared are you to protect your family and belongings?
- “I was eleven years old. Three and a half feet of water in the house. Mom sitting up in the “crawl space,” I on the closet shelf and Dad two rungs up the ladder. Thank you, John Pulling, for insisting that our roof be built “over spec.” Doesn’t matter what category Donna was if that roof had come off…” Resident of Seagate in Naples, September 1960 Hurricane Donna
The single largest destructive force of a hurricane is storm surge. The Saffir-Simpson Scale rating from 1-5 does not take storm surge into account as a surge can vary based on many localized factors: height of the tides, direction of approach of the hurricane (a “backdoor” hurricane coming from the east most likely will have less storm surge), the size and depths of local bays and the location of water bodies. Also key is the direction of the winds at the time of impact: wind driven waves can literally double the height of the surge.
In 2008, even though Hurricane Ike, a “mere” Category 2, hit the Texas coast with a peak surge of 15-20 feet, in 2004, Hurricane Charley powered up as a Category 4 and hit Charlotte Harbor with a surge of about half that height (6-7 feet). Take a look at Collier County’s potential surge maps– based upon the land elevations, a Category 1 can reach up to U.S. 41, a Category 2 half-way between 41 and I-75, Category 3 to I-75 and Categories 4 and 5 swamping all of Collier County. Remember that it was the storm surge that made Hurricane Donna so deadly – the storm literally emptied Naples Bay, Collier Bay and the Barron River flooding adjacent towns with millions of gallons of saltwater that in places crested four miles inland!
How do you know what to prepare for? In the “right” conditions a storm can jump one or more categories almost instantly. Wilma went from a tropical storm to a Category 5 in just 24 hours. Andrew’s winds were at 75 mph in the morning and by 11 a.m. the winds had picked up to 110 mph; the storm went to a Category 5 in less than 30 hours. Hurricane Charley powered up from a Category 3 to a 4 just before hitting land in Lee County.
So why is there is no Category 6? Hurricanes can become stronger than a 5, but as Robert Simpson, co-inventor of the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane scale explained, the scale was designed to measure the amount of wind damage inflicted, and whatever the wind speed is over 155 mph, the damage would still be severe. Very few man-made structures can withstand the enormous destructive power of a Category 5 hurricane.
Hurricanes are very unpredictable and there are no “Calusa Gods” protecting southwest Florida. Monitoring all official reports is critical and the closer a storm gets, the more important that becomes. In 2004, the National Hurricane Center projected the path of Hurricane Charley as heading up the coast toward Tampa. Fortunately, however, local meteorologists Jim Reif and Robert Van Winkle believed that Charley was turning and heading into Punta Gorda and Charlotte Count. Those viewers who were closely monitoring the situation got a one and a half hour advance warning that the storm was actually headed their way.
Adding to the unpredictability equation are the tornadoes spawned by the low pressure systems of hurricanes. After Hurricane Andrew passed through Florida and the Gulf of Mexico, it hit Louisiana as a low Category 3 hurricane, but much of the damage was created by the numerous tornadoes. Meteorologists admit that they have no way to predict when, if, or how many tornadoes can spin off from hurricanes.
In recent local news stories, residents were asked about their hurricane plans and most admitted they had no real plans, had never been through a hurricane, and gave vague answers about “evacuating if it is a Category 3 or 4 but not if it is a 1 or 2.” This is the wrong answer – if you are ever asked this question the correct answer is much simpler: plan ahead and leave immediately when an official evacuation order is made. But, don’t leave too early and do wait until the order is given. Otherwise, you may end up blocking evacuation routes and occupying hotel rooms needed by others who are in the actual path of the hurricane.
- “You don’t want to be here when a big hurricane hits. You want to listen to the experts who tell you to get out a long time before the storm gets here. If you’re caught here, you’re sunk. It’s too late. You can’t get out. You can’t go out in the yard to secure your house. You have to sit there, and listen to a wind you can’t believe. The wind howls and carries on and there’s nothing you can do. Nothing…” Bernard Russell, September 2, 1935, age seventeen. Fifty members of the Russell family died that night trying to ride out the storm at a point 12 feet above sea level. Labor Day Hurricane, 1935.
Time is a luxury that is not available when a major hurricane is bearing down on our coast. Right now, after you finish reading this article, you have the time to review the many excellent guides on how to secure your boats, stockpile supplies, stormproof your home, obtain your re-entry stickers, create alternative evacuation plans with motels or hotels in your identified route, and make checklists of jobs to be done and assigned tasks to family members. Those who wisely plan ahead are not found in long lines waiting to purchase plywood or batteries, or trapped in their vehicles on I-75 listening to the arrival of a hurricane, or trying to wait out the storm in their bathtubs, listening to the horrifying freight train noise of destruction and chaos around them.
For those who, due to lack of planning or preparation, are left behind, or who foolishly ignored mandatory evacuation orders, you need to know the following:
- Stories abound of those who have witnessed firsthand the power of the “Greatest Storms on Earth” and no one is ever quoted as saying they would choose to experience it again. In fact, quite the opposite – they are very sorry they stayed. Twice during Hurricane Charley, on August 13, 2004, Cliff McMahon, a resident of Port Charlotte, tried to write his name and social security number on his arm with a marker in case his body was later found and needed identification. He and his wife had barricaded themselves in their home. They used sofas and mattresses to shore up blown out windows and thought that the roof was going to go next. Fortunately, it held and they survived.
- Plan on taking care of any medical emergencies yourself as EMS is not available in a hurricane to assist you. Plan on providing your own food and utility needs such as electric, water, and sewer. Utilities may not be available for several weeks or longer. Plan on providing your own security as vandalism can and does occur after storms; plan for all of your current needs; and then plan for the unexpected. The preparation for staying is much more difficult than the preparation required for those who evacuate.
- Construction codes have improved greatly since Hurricane Andrew devastated South Florida, but those codes are based upon theoretical models, not completely tested in real life. While your house may have poured CBS walls, hurricane rated windows and hurricane clips – what is the weakest point in your home rated to? 120 mph? Do you really want to be there to find out where the flaws are?
- Remember that Hurricanes are no joke. On August 17, 196 9, a group of twenty-five residents refused to evacuate and decided instead to participate in a Hurricane Party. Hurricane Camille’s storm surge along the Mississippi shoreline set a record that day of 24 ½ feet above sea level. Of the twenty five partygoers, only two lived to see the end of the party.
For those loyal readers who have followed all of the articles in this series, know that much has changed in the last 100 years and we are now fortunate to have the best technology with good advance warnings. This has resulted in very low loss of life, but all of that is available only for those who don’t panic, are prepared, and carefully monitor and follow official reports.
- A good manual on Hurricane Preparation can be found at: www.cityofmarcoisland.com/Public_Documents/marcoislandfl_HurrPrep/Hurricanes.pdf
If this series of articles has educated you, or even scared you and prompted you to create a hurricane plan, then it was well worth the effort and research to write it.
Craig Woodward moved to Marco Island in 1968 and has practiced law in Collier County since 1980. Craig has led a history tour of the Island for the Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Marco program.