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The Danger Of Hurricane Complacency

U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
The infamous image of Hurricane Andrew as the eye crossed through southern Miami-Dade back in 1992.

Admit it, some of you were watching every single update on Hurricane Danny. Your heart perhaps skipped a beat or two every time the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration kept boosting Danny all the way up to a category three.

As of this post, Monday afternoon, Danny had winds up to 30 mph and was expected to bring a few inches of rain to Puerto Rico and Haiti this week.

Unfortunately there are people who may think of this latest event as just another false alarm. And what about the millions who have moved to Florida in the past decade who never experienced a hurricane? 

Dennis Feltgen, of the National Hurricane Center, says slow seasons such as the one we're experiencing can be misleading.

Hurricane Andrew occurred during a relatively slow storm season. There were only four named hurricanes that year and they stopped at the letter F -- Frances. It's a challenge, no doubt, to stay vigilant when there hasn't been a season like that of 2004 or 2005. Why have we gone so long without a major storm? Feltgen says a lot of it is luck.

"We've been blessed with a weather pattern during the peak of these hurricane seasons where we've had this persistent trough of low pressure along the East Coast. And those tend to steer away many of the systems. We've had a couple of el Niño years in there which suppress activity. So we've been very fortunate and had a record breaking streak. But, that record streak will end."

Feltgen also says another issue leading to complacency can be the seasonal outlooks. 

"I've seen headlines that say we're having a quiet season, a below-average season, I've even seen headlines that say 'boring season.'"

I remember 1992. I was a student at Florida International University and living in Doral. The day before Andrew made landfall was beautiful, peaceful, serene. But late into the evening there was a black wall of clouds off over the Atlantic, and you knew it was going to be bad, though we never imagined just how bad.

Credit Miami Herald
8/1992 - Chuck Fadely/Herald Staff - Hurricane Andrew. After stopping looters at a Payless Shoe Store, a group of Florida National Guardsmen takes a break. This company, from Homestead, was in a Miami armory when the storm hit, then immediately went into action. It was hours before they were allowed to call home to find out how their families fared. Troops outside Cutler Ridge Mall the day of the storm.

For hours I was bundled up in a small downstairs bathroom with my mother and brother. We waited and prayed the windows would hold up. Debris smashed against the house with the sound of small explosions. 

When it was over we walked the streets of our neighborhood. We were baffled by the randomness of the storm. Three condos stood and the fourth was demolished. Large trees were ripped from the ground leaving behind holes large enough for a small car to park in, meanwhile small trees, those flexible enough, stood straight. 

There was no power in our neighborhood for a couple weeks, and it wasn't long before the National Guard had to come in to keep the peace. I have to admit, a couple times I found myself driving on I-95 all alone after 10 p.m. way past the curfew. Luckily, neither the police nor the guard pulled me over.

It's likely that many in south Florida were not around for Andrew. Feltgen of the National Hurricane Center says the odds are astronomical anyone will be hit by a category five storm in any given year. 

"We've only had three category five hurricanes hitting the U.S. Andrew was the most recent. We had hurricane Camille in 1969 along the Gulf Coast, and we had the Labor Day hurricane going through the middle part of the Keys in 1935."

If you didn't go through Andrew, maybe you were in Florida in 2004 when Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne bombarded us. 

Credit Miami Herald

That season didn't give people much time to prepare. The four storms rode through the state between mid-August and mid-September. 

Feltgen says complacency is a problem, but so is denial.

"It's going to happen somewhere else. It'll never happen here. It's going to be up the state or the Gulf. I've been here all my life and I've never had one."

So the key is, even though Danny has been downgraded severely, it may still dump a lot of rain on us. There will always be another storm out in the Atlantic. Eventually one of them will make its way to Florida. Sooner or later we'll all have to hunker down and deal with another storm. So be prepared.

Luis Hernandez is an award-winning journalist and host whose career spans three decades in cities across the U.S. He’s the host of WLRN’s newest daily talk show, Sundial (Mon-Thu), and the news anchor every afternoon during All Things Considered.
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