Weary Floridians brace for another season of storms
Published: Wednesday, June 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, May 31, 2005 at 10:59 p.m.
Most people in North Central Florida greeted the start of the 2004 Atlantic hurricane season with the usual lack of interest: So it's June 1, ho-hum.
Last year's lackadaisical attitude early on was somewhat backed up by decades of little inland impact from a hurricane. In Alachua County, for example, it had been 40 years since a hurricane did more than blow loose a shingle here and there.
Today, the 2005 hurricane season begins, and there's a decided difference in the way inland Floridians are approaching this six-month period of anxiety that ends Nov. 30.
"Quite a few people have already bought portable generators for this season," said Will Gray May Jr., emergency services director for Alachua County. "Before last year, very few people had portable generators, unless they were into camping or recreational vehicles.
"We did not have it nearly as bad as it could have been last year," he said. "We did get hit pretty hard with tropical-force winds and rain for a good time, but we didn't actually have a hurricane strike our community. Last year was a strong reminder of what a hurricane can do to a community."
Another indicator that 2004 had caught people's attention was attendance at this year's 19th annual Governor's Hurricane Conference. Registrations doubled over last year to more than 2,700, and 200 vendors filled exhibit halls to capacity, said Ann Rowe, media coordinator for the week-long event that was held in Tampa in early May.
The historic 2004 season that saw a quartet of hurricanes strike Florida in less than seven weeks sounded an alarm that still rings statewide.
Last month, an unusually early Pacific hurricane - Adrian - swept across Central America before petering out over Honduras. It caused one death and minimal property damage.
For some Floridians, the television images of another hurricane being tracked brought back memories of the unnerving 2004 season that caused three deaths and more than $30 million in damage in Alachua County alone.
Hurricanes wreak havoc in 2004
Last hurricane season really began locally in the second week of August, when the Alachua County Office of Emergency Management activated its Emergency Operations Center in advance of Hurricane Charley. It was the first time the facility in east Gainesville had ever been activated for a storm, and over the next six weeks the EOC was made operational three more times for weeks on end. For days, an ominous Category 4 hurricane named Charley had been tracked on a course that would bring it ashore at Tampa Bay and take it inland directly across Alachua County. On Friday, Aug. 13, a few hours before it was forecast to make landfall in Tampa, Charley made an unexpected turn eastward and stormed into Charlotte County to the south.
While it cut a destructive path across the peninsula from Punta Gorda to near Daytona Beach, Charley spared North Central Florida. Emergency and utility officials here breathed a sigh of relief and soon were deploying local crews to Central and Southwest Florida to assist in their recovery.
Three weeks later, the crews were needed back home.
Over Labor Day weekend, Hurricane Frances ambled into the state and at one point its outer bands stretched from one end of the blue-tarped peninsula to the other. Downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it reached Alachua County, it remained dangerously strong, whipping the region with nearly 60 mph winds and flooding some areas with as much as 20 inches of rain.
Frances' agonizingly slow pace - it lingered over the area for nearly 24 hours starting about 1 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 5 - caused catastrophic damage in North Central Florida. By dusk on Labor Day in Alachua County, three people were dead, thousands of trees were toppled, 575 buildings were damaged and more than 90,000 homes and businesses were without electrical power.
More than 900 people in Alachua County spent the holiday in an emergency shelter.
Downed trees and branches snapped or pushed down power lines, blocked roads and crushed vehicles. Storm debris was piled alongside roadways and, over the next three months, hauled off in one of the largest public works projects ever undertaken in Alachua County.
Three weeks after the Labor Day weekend, the stressed-out region braced with the rest of Florida once again - for Jeanne, another weekend storm and the one that set the modern-day record of four hurricanes to hit the state in the same season.
About 10 days before Jeanne hit, North Central Florida was in the "cone of uncertainty" of the state's Hurricane No. 3, Ivan, whose winds at one point had reached 165 mph as it swirled across the Caribbean. But Hurricane Ivan stayed far enough out in the Gulf of Mexico that it bypassed North Central Florida on its way to the Panhandle, where it claimed eight of its 25 fatalities.
But Jeanne didn't bypass North Central Florida.
Although there were no deaths attributed locally to Jeanne, her Sept. 27 visit caused $2.5 million in damage in Alachua County, damaged nearly 300 structures countywide and sent almost 850 people to shelters. Her winds were slightly higher than those of Frances - gusts topped 60 mph - but Jeanne moved through the area much faster than the Labor Day storm and produced "only" about 5 inches of rain. But that was enough to intensify ground saturation and add to flooding problems across the region.
Jeanne also felled hundreds more trees in Alachua County, contributing to the growing mounds of storm debris. By the time Jeanne had passed, one Gainesville chain saw dealer had sold more than 400 units in a month - triple its normal sales.
Another active season
Eight months later, some North Central Florida victims of Frances and Jeanne still are awaiting roof and other repairs or insurance settlements. In April, a Gainesville roofer said half of the 100 current and future jobs booked were related to September's storms.
Together, Frances and Jeanne cost Alachua County almost $45 million in public-assistance, including emergency management, law enforcement and clean-up.
By the numbers, the coming hurricane season in the Atlantic basin bears an unsettling resemblance to last year's. Hurricane specialist William Gray of Colorado State University on Tuesday predicted another "active" season this year with 15 named storms, eight hurricanes and four intense hurricanes.
That compares to his prediction for the 2004 Atlantic season of 14 named storms, eight hurricanes and three intense hurricanes. Gray's predictions last year were close to reality: 15 named storms, nine hurricanes and three intense hurricanes actually occurred.
Do all the numbers suggest the state, and North Central Florida in particular, can expect more of the same this hurricane season?
David Zierden offers a glimmer of hope that this year won't be as historical as last. He's Florida's assistant state climatologist and a researcher in the Florida Climate Center based at Florida State University.
"Even though the numbers are similar to last year, Florida has the law of probabilities working on our side," Zierden said. "Having four hurricanes that impacted the state in one year was unprecedented, and the odds of that happening again are very small."
But, he added, the odds of one hurricane hitting Florida this season "are pretty high."
"Florida is impacted by a tropical system of some sort almost every year, so we can count on some activity this year," he said.
Zierden said Florida experiences the fewest tropical storms in years in which there is a strong El Niño in effect. El Niño, which occurs every three to seven years, results from surface-water temperature in the eastern Pacific that is warmer than normal, and the condition affects weather worldwide.
El Niño tends to limit the formation of tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic basin. Its counterpart, La Niña - a result of colder-than-normal temperatures in the Pacific - generally leads to increased Atlantic storm activity.
Zierden said that although there were some hints of El Niño earlier this spring, they fizzled and it appears this is a "neutral" year in which neither El Niño nor La Niña is dominant. And tropical storm activity in neutral years typically follows the La Niña pattern of risk, he said.
"So we're calling it a neutral year," he said, "and that may not be good for us."
Whether this season's risk of hurricanes is high or low in North Central Florida, there is one certainty: the need for preparation.
"Now is the time to put together a disaster plan and a hurricane-survival kit," said David Donnelly, Alachua County's assistant director for emergency management.
He said he thinks convincing people of that need will be a little easier this year.
"I think there were some lessons learned last year," he said. "People may be a little more savvy about the forecasting process, and they're not focusing so much on that single (tracking) line" on weather maps, but on the broader cone of uncertainty.
Donnelly said his office has been getting many calls from individuals, businesses and organizations about storm preparation. They learned after last year that you can't wait until 12 hours before the storm hits to begin preparing for it, he said.
He was among a contingent of emergency management people, first-responders and others from Alachua County who attended the governor's hurricane conference in Tampa last month. At one workshop on family preparation for the storm season, it was noted that many Florida counties this year have initiated a policy of requiring people with special medical needs to pre-register for special-needs shelters.
May said Alachua County has had that policy in place for years.
"It helps us plan our special-needs shelters," he said. "A benefit of pre-registering is that we will go on the proactive side as we're gearing up and will contact them, giving them information and offering transportation to the special-needs shelter if they need it."
May said one of the best opportunities for people to prepare for this season begins today.
The Florida Legislature passed a bill this spring establishing a tax holiday from today through June 12. During that time, the state's 6 percent sales tax will be waived on purchases of many storm supplies, including flashlights, batteries, portable generators and weather radios.
Plywood is not included in the tax holiday, however. Also, there are limits on how much of the price is free of tax - flashlights under $20, for example, and generators under $750. For more information on the tax holiday, go to http://www.floridadisaster.org.
New contact system
In the public sector, storm-preparation for this season has been under way since last year.
Donnelly said the Emergency Operations Center has gotten new computer software that will greatly improve communication among agencies during a storm.
"It's a quantum shift going from a paper-based system to the new electronic system," he said. "It not only improves efficiency but gives more access to more people."
Donnelly said the new system streamlines the distribution of information - such as which shelters are open, or where sandbags are available - that comes from the various public agencies.
Since last year's storms, Alachua County's public works department has purchased or ordered additional pumps to help in case of flooding at stormwater facilities. They are seen as a short-term measure until more money is available for more long-term fixes in stormwater infrastructure, said Dave Cerlanek, county engineer and an assistant director of public works.
He said communication was a problem for his department during last year's storms. Periodically during the storms, he said, the public works headquarters lost power, or land-line and cell phones wouldn't work.
"One of the lessons we learned was that you can't have too many modes of communication," Cerlanek said. "There were times last year when we were down to using (two-way) radios. We're looking into maybe getting some satellite phones."
Lessons Gainesville Regional Utilities learned in 2004 - when some customers were without electricity for more than two weeks - prompted it to enhance the way it responds to the public.
GRU plans to hold meetings this summer with community groups to better explain its service-restoration process, answer questions and dispel rumors. Beginning today, the utility will include a new feature, "Storm Central," on its Web site, www.gru.com. The link, which will be on the site throughout the hurricane season, will include information about preparation, responsibility and power restoration.
GRU also plans to upgrade its phone system to double the capacity of incoming calls. Last year, there were long periods when customers couldn't reach GRU to report outages or get repair schedules, which only added to overstressed people's frustration and anger.
As the new storm season begins, May cautioned that even with all the mitigation and improvements since last year, the need for vigilance and preparedness remains. He recalled how, after Hurricane Charley's threat to North Central Florida vanished, people slipped back into the attitude that it can't happen here.
"Then when Frances was coming, they were a little slow on the uptake," May said. "But when Frances came through, it really got people's attention. Then when Jeanne came visiting, the response from the public was much quicker.
"I'm hoping," he said, "that that carries through this season."
Bob Arndorfer can be reached at (352) 374-5042 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hurricane Frances was responsible for three deaths in Alachua County over the Labor Day weekend last year. No deaths were attributed in the county to Hurricane Jeanne, which hit the area on Sept. 27.
He died about noon on Sept. 5 after his car crashed into a tree along Interstate 75 north of Micanopy during heavy rain. Schwartz, who was an accountant, was driving north to Atlanta after attending a wedding in Lakeland, where he had grown up.
Hall, a former Texas Ranger, lived with her husband and parents in the mobile home. They all had been watching television coverage of Hurricane Frances when high winds toppled the tree, which crashed through the roof and killed Hall almost instantly.
Jacqueline McGriff, 87, is believed to have died of smoke inhalation the night before. She had been without electrical power and apparently had lighted candles in her bedroom. Investigators speculated that a candle fell onto her mattress and started a fire. Her body was found about 9 a.m. Monday in an adjoining room.
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