When a hurricane approaches South Florida, Robin Sing-Cunningham makes sure she has plenty of ice, candles and a generator. Then there’s the gas-powered blender, storm-themed music (think ‘It’s Raining Men’ by the Weather Girls, ‘Riders on the Storm’ by the Doors and plenty of Jimmy Buffett), games and drinks.
If a low-category hurricane blows through, Sing-Cunningham, a Fort Lauderdale real estate agent, likes to attend or throw a party. She and a handful of friends will gather in the sturdiest home, hunker down and try to have fun as winds pluck away roof tiles, palm trees and swing sets outside. It’s an experience that makes her feel “exuberant.”
“This is just people really wanting to experience the full force of nature and being safe,” she said.
Sing-Cunningham said she takes precautions and would evacuate if a Category 3 hurricane or higher took aim at Fort Lauderdale. Still, emergency management officials hate to hear of such parties. A hurricane’s path and strength aren’t always predictable. And if something were to happen — say, a door blow in or roof fly off in the middle of a storm — being tipsy would make it all that more difficult to respond. The Atlantic tropical storm season begins June 1.
“I think there’s always going to be some percentage that is going to stay put, that is going to party like there’s no tomorrow,” said Dennis Feltgen, public affairs officer for the National Hurricane Center in Miami. “All that we can hope is that this is an extremely small number of people that do this. And that luck stays with them.”
Hurricane parties are hardly a new phenomena; the most infamous dates back to 1969, when Hurricane Camille struck Mississippi as a Category 5 storm, the most powerful. One of the most harrowing tales of death and survival to emerge was the Richelieu apartments, where residents had reportedly stayed behind to party.
Several died, and while survivors have disputed the story and insist there was no party, the myth stuck and has been repeated through the years, serving as a cautionary tale for tempted partygoers.
For a stretch of time decades ago, there were no catastrophic hurricanes to strike Florida and the U.S. Gulf Coast. Several near-misses built up a sense of immunity. College students and families alike took on hurricanes with cheer.
Jon Birge remembers playing loud music, drinking and eating when hurricanes rolled by New Orleans when he was a student at Tulane University in the 1970s. In those days, he said, there weren’t any shelters to go to.
“When you’re young and irreverent and a hurricane’s on the way, and most of them miss, you just use it as an excuse because you’re not going to have school the next day,” said Birge, who manages the band Cowboy Mouth, which wrote a song called “Hurricane Party.” “People use it as an excuse to get together and have a good time.”
The band’s song talks about throwing a wild hurricane party in New Orleans.
“Waitin’ for the gale force winds to blow,” the song goes. “Shuffle up the cards and let the liquor flow.”
The song was written before Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the city and its surroundings in 2005. Birge said the band doesn’t play it anymore.
“Now it’s not a memory people want to have encouraged,” he said.
For most, going through one devastating storm is enough to make them think twice before boozing up during the next. Florida State University sociology professor John Taylor studied the long-term mental health affect of Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 storm that destroyed much of Homestead in 1992. He said that after surviving one ruinous storm, residents are more likely to leave the second time around.
“I think the phenomenon is not nearly as likely to happen today as it was before Andrew and Katrina,” Taylor said. “It was no laughing matter. And if you were in that part of the storm, there would be no party.”
The problem, said Feltgen, of the National Hurricane Center, is that most people who live on the coast have not experienced the full fury of a disastrous hurricane. Many South Florida residents, for example, did not experience the brunt of Andrew.
“We have folks that are in, like, Broward County, and they say, ‘Oh yeah, we went through Andrew, it was the worst thing ever,’ and they didn’t even come close to the full power,” Feltgen said. “It can be very dangerous because it can lull you into a false sense of security, ‘I’m OK for this next one.’ And the next storm you may get the worst part.”
Hurricanes that seem weak can intensify quickly and their predicted point of landfall isn’t always correct.
“You have to treat each storm with respect and be prepared for the worst case,” Feltgen said.
Sing-Cunningham has lived in South Florida for 13 years and been through her fair share of storms. She said she’d only stick around for a Category 1 or 2 hurricane. In the past, she’s hosted one party and attended others.
Sing-Cunningham said she takes all the same hurricane preparation measures as others.
“It’s not keggers or anything like that,” she said. “It’s just people riding off the storm, laughing, playing games.”
During the eye of the storm, Sing-Cunningham said she and her friends will go out and make videos.
“As long as you know what you’re doing, you know what you’re getting into and you prepare correctly, it’s not dangerous,” Barry Johnson, a real estate investor who is friends with Sing-Cunningham, said of the festivities. “We monitor the storm constantly. If anybody feels like they could possibly be in danger, they don’t come.”
Aside from storm-themed music, partygoers have also been known to make storm-themed drinks (hurricane, anyone?). Sing-Cunningham once had a gas-powered blender (she gave it away but plans to buy another). It’s called the Tailgator, and wasn’t originally conceived for use during hurricane parties, company owner Richard Hayes said.
Incidentally enough, though, Hayes said they sell many to customers in the Southeast, and their peak season is from spring through the fall, which happens to coincide with hurricane season. Hayes said he didn’t know of the blenders being used during or after hurricanes, though they did sell many after Hurricane Katrina.
For others, the party takes place before the storm starts.
After Hurricane Andrew, the Little Bar Restaurant in Goodland decided to hold an annual festivity in honor of the hurricane goddesses of the Atlantic basin. People come in their pajamas — dressed as though they were waiting for a storm to pass — and make works of art from their leftover cans of Spam from the previous year.
Since the tradition began, the restaurant has been spared any major damage.
“You take a bad situation and you make something positive out of it,” said Jenni Peters, the restaurant’s general manager. “And we’ve been very lucky ever since then.”