I had originally scheduled a release for the final bonus chapter of the Marketing Author 001 today, but I decided to push that and all of my other upcoming releases back a week to focus on a more timely event.
About two weeks ago, Hurricane Harvey roared onto the coast of southeast Texas and caused extensive and catastrophic flooding damage to the region. It became a major historical event that will take a long, long time for the people of Houston and surrounding areas to recover from. Today, another storm, Hurricane Irma, is destroying the Lesser Antilles with 185 mph winds, and over the next couple of days will continue west through Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, Cuba, and the Bahamas, and by late this weekend, if the predicted track holds true, will makes its unwelcome appearance here in South Florida.
Now, last year in October, South Florida was threatened by another major storm, Hurricane Matthew, but that storm skirted the coast, as the big ones often do, and continued on north of us. The end result was bad for the Carolinas, but pretty tolerable here. I ended up keeping my lights on the whole time.
It’s easy to assume that Hurricane Irma will do something similar, especially when the projected track is already in close alignment with Matthew’s, and when the patterns of moving north ever so slightly, enough to change the potential landfall in fact, continue to persist.
But, as I’ve learned through years of preparing for absentee storms and bracing for the monsters that actually arrive, hurricanes are unpredictable, and expecting one to do exactly as another has done in the past is a mistake, and one that no one can afford to make.
Now, Hurricane Irma is still out there, and its effects on Florida and the rest of the East Coast have not yet been determined. It could come right up the middle of the state in the same way that Arnold Schwarzenegger went right up the middle of Buzzsaw, a villain he battles in 1987’s The Running Man. But it could also steer clear of the state entirely, spend some more time in the water, perhaps take a direct visit to Canada, and leave everyone else alone. Only time and history will tell, of course.
With the future of the storm unknown, but the lessons it can teach us still at the forefront, I thought it was time to reintroduce one of my older articles from 2006 about this very topic, told through the lens of The Big Four, the hurricanes that struck Florida in 2004, as a way to bring the legacies of the past into the relevance of the presence, and hopefully to remind those who read this to respect the power of a major hurricane, no matter where it goes or whom it affects.
I’ll be releasing this story in four parts, one each night until Saturday, when the storm prepares to hit. Because everything I’ve got coming up the line is on a schedule, my previously planned articles will still make landfall, whether I lose power or not, but a week later than planned. So, The Marketing Author 001, Part 13 will go live next Wednesday, September 13, and additional articles will follow on the 14th, 20th, 21st, and 22nd. Hopefully I’ll have power again by then. (Hopefully I won’t lose it in the first place.)
(Story begins below the photo of Key West getting slammed by a hurricane.)
A History of Hurricanes
At the height of the 2004 Hurricane Season, a friend of mine asked if I had a hurricane magnet in my pocket. I told him I did. I had carried it around since August of that year, only briefly to pass it off at the start of 2005, just to reclaim it back to my possession near the height of that season. It was an exciting thing—attracting so many anomalies over the course of fourteen months. Even now as I write this, I have no guarantee that the phenomenon has run its course. With some heavy hitting names like “Beryl,” “Florence,” and “Joyce” on the list, the 2006 season about to launch in six weeks will no doubt put the shade of red into Florida’s cheeks for the third year in a row.
Ah, the magic word: Florida, a peninsular state that weather experts all over the Western Hemisphere have whispered about for ages. The target of more than a hundred spinners in as many years, the trap of tourists who eagerly race for the northern highways come August and September—that’s the magic kingdom we know as Florida. My place of birth. The land of my upbringing. Florida. Both the weatherman’s fantasy and his nightmare rolled up into one ball of emotion. The state where insurance is an unpredictable commodity. My home state.
Anyone who has watched CNN or the Weather Channel since August 2004 will know that Florida was stamped with a bull’s eye. Those dormant weather makers that have teased us for years finally pounded on our front doors and demanded to rip us apart. For two straight years. With no guarantee that the torment has finished. As I type this, the state is holding its breath.
The funny thing is that life didn’t start with such anxiety in the early days of my memory. Even though some notorious storm systems made their way through my backyard over the years, none of them heightened my tension the way the 2004 season did. My first recollection started with “David,” a 1979 storm that kicked the crap out of the Caribbean, but somehow lost its punch when it brushed the South Florida coast. My father took me to the beach when the wind started churning, to show me the tide and to introduce me to the spectacle. Where normally that would’ve been a bad idea (storm surges are usually inevitable with hurricanes), the punch was so weak that it didn’t seem like anything more than just another windy and rainy day. And unless “David” was actually “Danny” (1985)—though I’m pretty sure I wasn’t anywhere close to nine years old yet—this thing reduced my fear of hurricanes to an almost nonexistent level. Any time the “threat” of a hurricane became eminent, I just shrugged it off, as if it were another “David”—that horribly weak storm that couldn’t blow a leaf off a tree—that storm that unbeknownst to me at the time had killed way more than a thousand people on an island south of me and at one time packed Category 5 winds not even a week before passing over me. Like most Floridians, I was disillusioned. At three years old, I was disillusioned.
My eyes didn’t awaken to the true ferocity of a hurricane until thirteen years later—the year that Florida had gotten its dues for the first time in a generation. In the late eighties, I heard about monsters like “Gilbert” (1988) and “Hugo” (1989) terrorizing the Atlantic and the Caribbean, but I figured they were products of a different world—a world that didn’t mess with Florida. “Hugo” got my attention when the local news showed footage of his aftermath in Charleston, South Carolina, revealing a level of damage that seemed uncharacteristic of the hurricanes that I knew. Wreckage remained where homes previously stood, and families sobbed over their hardened losses. It was a strange sight to see. The hurricanes in my world didn’t do such things. The hurricanes in my world sent their gusty breezes, but not much else. “Hugo” was no doubt a bit freaky. But he was an anomaly. Storms like him didn’t strike south of the Carolinas. Storms like him only struck the Carolinas.
If only that were true.
Three years later, his hopped-up cousin came to town.
“Andrew” (1992) changed my mind about hurricanes forever, sort of. When I was sixteen years old, I was hanging out with my youth group at the same beach where my father had taken me to see “David” so many years earlier. We were there on the Saturday before the new school year started, undoubtedly trying to squeeze out the last remnants of our sacred vacation, and I had no idea that something big was brewing in the Atlantic. The youth pastor’s wife mentioned that a storm was coming, but I didn’t think anything of it. Storms that came after Florida were like de-clawed cats that came after pine trees. Nothing about them spelled scariness. But then, I went home to watch the news and felt my heart pound for the first time. That little wimpy “Andrew” was packing over 150mph sustained winds. And he was aiming for South Florida. The storms that landed before him barely packed 80mph winds. They weren’t anything to panic over. But “Hugo” of South Carolina packed close to 140mph winds. And that thing wrecked a community. This “Andrew” was out there laughing at “Hugo,” and it was coming right for South Florida? Laughing at us? The arrival of a hurricane didn’t seem so comfortable all of a sudden.
Sunday was spent preparing the house for his arrival. As a sixteen-year-old who didn’t want to be bothered with housework, I felt like I was wasting a perfectly nice day. I hated the prep work involved with bracing a house for a hurricane, but I put up with it because I didn’t have much of a choice. If “Andrew” was coming, he wasn’t going to be bringing roses. I did what I was told. And then, night fell. The news was dedicated entirely to “Andrew” for the rest of the evening. In my prior memories I couldn’t recall the news devoting so much of its airtime to a hurricane. Undoubtedly, this one was serious. And I kept myself glued to the television all night.
Even as my parents slept, I stayed in the living room monitoring the progress of this storm. Not once did the wind speeds die during the course of its coming. Somehow I expected it to lose its punch as it drew closer, but it kept coming, inching ever closer as the harbinger of doom. I looked out my back window to see our palm tree whipping around as the winds kicked up to 60mph. It was enough to bend the frond all the way down to the grass. And the storm drew closer, holding its course. All it needed was to shift direction toward the north by one degree and it would be upon me full force. But it held its course—passing over the Bahamas, passing through the Florida straits, reaching the South Florida coast, hitting the city of Miami full force—brushing me with its 60mph shoulder.
It missed me. The news showed the streets of metro Miami getting smashed with horribly fierce winds: traffic lights flinging around like rag dolls, streams of water rushing through the avenues at ungodly speeds. But my palm frond continued to dance outside the back window, as if it knew the chance for fury had subsided. When the sun came up a couple of hours later and the conditions failed to worsen, my trees, my home, and my neighborhood continued to stand. The great and powerful “Andrew” kept his fury limited to the south. The most we lost in the skirmish were a few leaves and the first day of school. All was back to normal by Tuesday. But the cameras were still rolling and the southern regions of Miami were on the news. “Hugo” was reborn. “Andrew” put the fear in me.
For the next couple of years I watched the news during hurricane season religiously. For every new storm that surfaced, I had to find out what it was doing and where it was going. Each week I waited to see if my home was destined for danger, but nothing came. For two straight years, Florida received nothing in the catastrophe department like it did from “Andrew.” Only “Gordon” (1994) stood a chance at re-igniting my fears, but that was due to something that happened on the highway. All in all, Florida’s big hurricane crisis was limited to one isolated storm. After the busy season of 1995, I became exhausted with hurricane news and decided I didn’t care anymore. Each season before and after were as big of a bust as they were in the ‘80s. We spent an entire day preparing for storms that eventually turned into “coastal riders.” In 1999, the last straw hit me as I sat in my darkened house in Orlando waiting for a new monster to come at me. “Floyd,” the first storm to put the fear in me since “Andrew,” came up to the Central Florida coastline near Daytona, promising to sweep across the state with an unholy swath of destruction in its Category 3 wake, and changed its mind. At the last minute, the storm swung northward and rode up the coast into the Carolinas, where it rerouted its destructive intentions into some small towns in the northern state. I was disappointed.
The thing that I learned from “Andrew” and confirmed in “Floyd” (and in many of the storms before and since) was that hurricanes, as destructive as they had the potential to be, were relentless teases. The big ones had a habit of taunting me, making it clear that they were coming for my house, bringing the pain with them, but only the little ones ever followed through. The ones that actually had damage potential put the fear in the local news enough to convince residents like me to board up, to bottle up, and to pack away a garage full of canned soup. But at the last minute they’d change direction, and all of a sudden my entire Sunday was wasted. No hurricane. No danger. Just a boarded up house and an idiot sitting inside. By the start of the 2000s, I didn’t give any thought to hurricanes anymore.
My jaded heart against the hoopla continued all the way into the middle of August 2004. On Wednesday, the night of the 11th, I walked around the aisles of a Blockbuster Video in Altamonte Springs, Florida (a suburb of Orlando), searching for DVDs, when I heard one of the clerks nearby talking about two storms that were churning near the state: “Bonnie” and “Charley.” I didn’t listen very intently, because I no longer respected hurricanes for the dead-focused behemoths they should’ve been. I walked home that night (I lived up the street from the store), putting the thought out of my mind.
The next day I walked to the pool to catch up on some reading, where I was surprised to see the deck chairs stacked up and roped off. I thought the condo association was just cleaning the area, so I walked to the other pool across the parking lot to read there, instead. But I discovered the same ordeal. Without a place to sit, I decided to stick my feet into the pool and read by the steps. And that’s when I noticed the fitness room across from the fence sealed off with the big giant “X” of masking tape. Now I knew the comments from the night before meant something.
As it turned out, “Charley” was the one that got the clerk’s attention, as it was the one that got the condominium’s attention. The forecast predicted it to come ashore near Gainesville as a Category 2, but the threat to Orlando was subjective. Seeing as how the preparation efforts were primarily limited to masking tape coverings, I didn’t think much of it. I went to sleep that night with my usual expectations.
The next day, however, my mood changed. “Charley” had already become a Category 2 by the morning of Friday the 13th, but somehow, in the time it took for me to escape the Weather Channel in the early afternoon to go to the grocery store and to return an hour later, the entire forecast shifted. When I headed back to my apartment, one of the neighbors stopped me and asked if I heard about the updates. Since I was at Publix for the last hour, my answer was “no.” Apparently, that wimpy little “Charley,” a former list-mate of “Andrew’s,” had blown up into a strong Category 4. And it wasn’t heading for Gainesville any longer. Now the forecast aimed it straight for Tampa Bay—a coastal region surrounded by three large cities. For the first time in twelve years, I sensed that catastrophic destruction was coming. Seeing a place on the news that I had just visited three months earlier, called The Pier, intensified my dread. The last fond memory I had with a close friend, and the place that formed it, was endangered of getting wiped off the map. My dread sunk in.
But then, “Charley” did something no one expected. He shifted again. As conditions in my own town drastically deteriorated, “Charley” took his aim off Tampa and moved into the coast with destructive power through a town called Port Charlotte near Fort Myers. At Category 4 strength, he ripped through that region with the anger and fierceness of “Hugo,” but he wasn’t finished with them. He had a mission—a significant point to prove. After all the times I had been teased by weak storms and course-changing powerhouses, “Charley” initiated a war that would forever change my tune. He came right for me—dead on. That night, at 9pm, as my power blew out, the eye of this rampaging storm, which was supposed to strike Tampa Bay, reached I-4 in the Kissimmee region and rode the highway all the way up, past Universal Studios, through downtown Orlando, and right over Altamonte Springs—right over my buried head. For the first time ever, I sat in a darkened room without windows, waiting for a fierce storm to pass by.
Within an hour, the 90mph winds died down and the eye was on top of me. All was calm. I waited for the backside to hit, but there wasn’t much to it. It was in and out and on its way over Daytona by midnight. I walked to my car to listen to the news. Palm trees were decapitated all around the neighborhood. A pile of fallen debris blocked the driver side of my poor Honda Civic (a car unfortunate enough to sit through four of these monsters). An oak tree had fallen on top of one of the buildings next to the first pool. Hurricane reality finally woke me up. And “Charley” was just the warning shot. The neighborhood was completely trashed, the city as a whole was littered with damaged signs and fallen trees, and “Charley” was only the beginning of a two-year nightmare.
(Part 2 tomorrow)
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Cover Image: Pixabay