Florida Officials Worry About Complacency Over Hurricanes

By | May 28, 2010

It’s been more than 1,600 days since Florida was hit by a hurricane, and that one — Wilma — walloped Natalie Premock’s home.

But since then, nothing. And time has faded memories.

The 31-year-old mortgage processor and her husband now don’t do much of anything to prepare for hurricane season, which begins Tuesday and runs through Nov. 30.

“We hardly even stock up on supplies at all,” Premock said. “I don’t get too excited about them anymore. But if it’s a couple of days before and one is going to hit us, then I’ll probably be one of those crazy people in the stores in panic mode.”

That’s exactly what worries state and county emergency managers who fear four years without a hurricane may have bred in Floridians a dangerous level of complacency. Millions may not buy food, water and other supplies until a hurricane is imminent, which puts stress on the system and means thousands could be stranded without basics.

“If I own property at the base of Mount St. Helens, I think it’s incumbent upon me as a property owner to know there might be an eruption,” said David Halstead, director of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management. He was referring to a Washington state volcano that erupted in 1980, killing 57 people.

“You don’t need to live in fear, but you need to have a plan. You need to be prepared,” Halstead said. “What are you going to do if you’re without power for three or four days?”

He said the state has been working to create partnerships with private entities such as Publix supermarkets and CVS pharmacies to get them open as soon as possible after a storm, but that it’s up to the public to be prepared in the meantime.

“We’re never going to stop Mr. and Mrs. Jones from that last minute, ‘I didn’t prepare and now I have no water’ moment,” Halstead said. But complacency, he added, can be a killer.

Heading into the 2006 hurricane season, many Floridians were prepared for storms after having weathered the brutal 2004 and 2005 seasons that saw eight storms come ashore, including the last one, Hurricane Wilma, which made landfall as a Category 3 and killed 35 people. Then came 2007 and 2008. Mostly quiet.

Nine named storms developed last season with only three becoming hurricanes, and none hitting the U.S. Forecasters say that’s largely due to El Nino, a phenomenon of warm Pacific waters that can hinder tropical storm formation.

But that may soon end. Officials say cooling Pacific waters and warmer temperatures in the Atlantic could increase the risk for the East Coast to be slammed by a hurricane this season.

Colorado State University researchers said in April there’s a 45 percent chance of a hurricane hitting the East Coast and Florida this year. Their forecast predicts 15 named storms, four of them developing into major hurricanes with sustained winds of at least 111 mph.

National Hurricane Center Director Bill Read says the forecasts are just predictions and that numbers don’t necessarily add up to loss of life and damages.

“Look at 1992,” Read said, when seven storms formed in the Atlantic, but only one made landfall _ the whopping Hurricane Andrew, which hit South Florida as a Category 5 storm with gusts topping 170 mph. It killed 23 people in the U.S. and caused more than $25 billion in damages in Florida alone.

“The number that occurs in a season doesn’t really correlate with the impacts that might occur from just one,” Read said.

He said Floridians need to remain vigilant.

“As frequent as hurricanes are in Florida, if someone doesn’t think it’s going to happen to them, they’re just denying the obvious,” he said. “You always hope that people don’t let their guard down.”

No matter how long it’s been since the last big one, Robert Bechler, 38, isn’t taking any chances.

“I lived through Andrew, so I know not to be complacent,” Bechler said.

The Cape Coral contractor said he purchases supplies every year, including food, gas for his generator, gallons of water and even rope, “in case I have to tie myself to something so I don’t get blown away.”

Topics Catastrophe Natural Disasters Florida Hurricane

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