A Category One Hurricane in Florida

In the early morning hours of Monday, October 24, 2005, Hurricane Wilma made its way along a diagonal path that affected most of South Florida, including Broward, Miami-Dade, and Monroe Counties. A Category 1 storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale, Wilma cruised along at a relatively fast pace of 25 miles per hour, a factor that we South Floridians hoped would spare us from the fate of the Yucatan (Mexico) Peninsula’s various resort towns like Cancun and Cozumel; the week before, Wilma had been a catastrophic Category 5, then 4, storm that lingered over Mexico for several days. Thus when the National Hurricane Center issued the forecast track, speed, and strength of Wilma once it made landfall in Southwest Florida and followed a cold front on that diagonal swath to the Atlantic, the reaction here was mostly Oh, okay, it’s only a Category 1 storm and it’s not gonna stick around much. Maybe it’ll just knock down a few trees and some power lines, but it’s not gonna be another Katrina or Andrew.

Unfortunately, Wilma (the third hurricane to either pass through or threaten South Florida this year; Katrina crossed Miami-Dade and a couple of other counties, including Monroe and Collier, while Rita did some damage to Key West) didn’t just pass through and cause some nuisance-level damage. By the afternoon of the 24th, 3.3 million residents in the region were without power and entire neighborhoods (including mine) left with torn down fences, toppled trees, dangling satellite antennae, broken windows, and structural damage that ranged from partial loss of roofing material to total destruction as ceilings collapsed in apartment buildings and “cookie cutter” dwellings. As of this writing, thousands of South Floridians are now homeless, and there is now a critical shortage of affordable housing.

The extent of the damage even led the Miami Herald to ask in a front page headline, A Category 1 Hurricane Did This?

The bewildered and angry tone of that headline seems to reflect a certain feeling among Floridians that Category 1 storms are pussycats in comparison to such monsters as Andrew and Katrina (names that will be retired from the rotating hurricane name lists). No matter how often or clearly the men and women at the National Hurricane Center and other experts on tropical storms explain that even a Category 1 has more destructive power than the atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima in 1945, most people tend to shrug their shoulders at “minimal hurricanes” and prepare only reluctantly…or sometimes refuse to prepare, saying such absurdities as “Oh, my house survived Andrew in ’92; it’ll survive Wilma.” (To that comment, I’ll just reply with this: “My house survived Andrew almost unscathed, but Wilma tore a chunk of my roof off…now I have plastic tarp covering a hole about the size of a bathtub.”)

As for the shock and surprise that such a “minimal storm” did so much damage to the region, it really shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise, at least not to the politicians (particularly the Florida Legislature and the Public Service Commission), the big developers, and the people in charge of Florida Power & Light, the regional monopoly that provides electricity to much of the southern half of the peninsula. All these various entities are aware – or should be, anyway – that Florida’s geographic location makes the state particularly vulnerable to hurricanes and tropical storms from various directions.

They also should be aware that hurricane activity is cyclical in nature; the Atlantic Ocean undergoes a warming trend every 20 to 30 years, which results in the spawning of more tropical weather activity since cyclonic storm systems receive much of their energy from warmer water. The hotter the ocean, we’re told, the stronger the storm, thus explaining why warmer-than-average temperatures in the Gulf made Katrina the monster that helped wreck New Orleans in August of 2005. The last previous “busy cycle” in the Atlantic lasted from the mid-1940s to around 1965, then things quieted down, relatively speaking, until the early 2000s, even though the ’90s saw an uptick of hurricane activity that included strikes on South Florida by Hurricanes Andrew and Irene.

The sad reality is that as Florida’s urban areas continue to expand and become more vulnerable, the region becomes more and more vulnerable to hurricanes and tropical storms. The politicians, for instance, had a pretty laid-back attitude toward building codes; Florida’s were among the laxest in the nation until Hurricane Andrew smashed most of southern Miami-Dade County (including Homestead Air Force Base) almost back to the Stone Age. Thousands lost homes and businesses, and millions of residents lost power when Category 4 winds toppled trees and utility poles as if they were matchsticks. Back then, the politicians swore up and down that they’d do something about it, and building codes were revised to reduce the damage from any future storms.

Florida Power & Light also should have – but didn’t – started to revamp the infrastructure of South Florida’s electrical grid by taking such common-sense steps as burying more power lines rather than keeping them strung up on utility poles – most of them next to trees! – and inspected existing wooden and concrete poles for wear and tear. Yet, even as FPL prepares to charge its customers for “lost revenue,” some angry legislators and local politicians are going to investigate why the company hasn’t been maintaining its power poles.

According to a story in the November 9, 2005 issue of the Miami Herald, “Spurred on by residents’ tales of seeing many rotten utility poles that fell down during Wilma, the North Miami City Commission voted unanimously Tuesday night to inspect all of the 6,000 to 8,000 utility poles in the city.”

Most reasonable people would assume that FPL would have figured out by now that, “Gee, we live in a coastal region that is storm-prone. Maybe we should redesign the grid.” Yet the utility giant (a for-profit corporation) is way behind on making sure that the wooden poles aren’t rotted and that trees are trimmed on a regular basis. Now they got the Public Service Commission to approve a 20% rate hike to residential customers (and a heftier 30-41% hike for businesses and industries) and saying that burying the power lines is too expensive and is no panacea.

All right. So burying more lines underground will be expensive, and there are no cure-all solutions to anything, but given the fact that we are now paying not only for last year’s four hurricanes but also now for Katrina, Rita, and Wilma’s damaging passages, FPL should give the concept more serious consideration.

As for the damage to dwellings in South Florida – the other surprise effect of a “mere” Category 1 – there might have been some “microbursts” of Category 2 or maybe 3 strength, but after seeing how flimsy the shingles and other roofing materials are in my neighborhood, I’m inclined to think that the architects, builders, and corporations behind the “cookie cutter” communities and condo developments are even more responsible for the structural damage Wilma inflicted on South Florida. The roofs in Eastwind Lake Village, the condo where I live, haven’t been inspected annually since 1992, and those that withstood 100 mph gusts during Andrew gave way fast under Wilma’s brief but furious visit. Metal braces and piles of shingles (some which were rotted) littered our streets for about a week.

Not only that, but the inept landscape architects who designed the foilage arrangement and chose which trees and bushes to plant way back in 1976 chose plants with very shallow and extensive root systems. They look nice, yes, but whenever a storm hits, many of them topple over like bowling pins, destroying cars and fences, breaking windows, and even lifting up the sidewalk. All of these bad choices, of course, were done in a “quiet” Atlantic hurricane cycle, and even the Dade County building inspectors never gave any thought to how those plants would stand up to even a minimal hurricane.

So really the question the Herald – and the public – should ask isn’t A Category 1 Did This? The weather experts warned us that a hurricane is a powerful force of nature capable of wreaking much havoc in a heavily urbanized area. Rather, we should be looking into how long we Floridians can live in a state of denial about tropical storms…and how woefully unprepared we still are to prevent serious damage to the region’s infrastructure.

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