Recently I was severely criticized on social media for agreeing with Rush Limbaugh. It's extraordinarily rare that I've ever agreed with him about anything. I think this is the second time it has ever happened. Hey, "even a broken clock is right twice a day," and if something is true the source is irrelevant. Still, people are horrified and I am a very bad, stupid person for acknowledging that he could possibly be right about anything, under any circumstances. His previous statement that I agreed with years ago was, "If something doesn't seem to make sense and you cannot figure out why it is happening, follow the money." This has proved to be quite useful and most often accurate.
More recently, Mr. Limbaugh made some comments about hurricanes which his critics paraphrased as: "Hurricane Irma is a hoax, fake news invented by liberals to push their Global Warming agenda and exaggerated by the media to promote panic-induced retail sales." To be fair, however, that's not exactly what Rush said. If you read the link above, he did not say Irma was a hoax. And he is correct that bigger, badder hurricanes do raise awareness about Climate Change - to whatever extent influenced by human activity, or just a "natural cycle," I am not taking a stance here either way.
What he did say, and I agree is largely true based on my experience living in Florida for a total of around 27 years, was that hurricanes never turn out to be as strong as predicted [at least when they hit the mainland], and the media vastly exaggerate the danger to promote panic-induced retail sales of bottled water and other supplies. He also correctly pointed out that the projected path of the eyewall, the 20-to-40-mile diameter center of the storm carrying the greatest threat on impact, is extremely unreliable until right before it hits, often just a few hours. This is an important fact which is crucial to understanding the logistics of hurricane preparedness.
When I said on Facebook that Rush was right about the media exaggerating the severity of storms (e.g., "Irma is going to destroy the entire state of Florida," "everybody needs to get out or you will die!") one of my friends from California objected, "People here wish we could predict earthquakes like you can hurricanes, so we could get out ahead of time! If you know 3 days in advance that the storm is coming, where it will strike and how bad it will be, why wouldn't you want to evacuate? Better safe than sorry!" The problem is, we don't really "know" any of those things.
Everyone who has watched coverage of a hurricane on t.v. has seen the "spaghetti path" and "forecast cone" models predicting the likely path of the storm, and those of us who live in these regions know how inaccurate the models can be and how wildly the path can deviate from its projected course over the days and hours before landfall. Given the size and shape of Florida, a typical "forecast cone" coming from the south will indeed cover much of the state, but that does not mean that the entire area under the cone will necessarily be affected. All it means is that the center of the storm is predicted to go somewhere within that cone. And even though the satellite radar images show a storm devouring the entire state, the biggest danger, again, is in the eyewall. While Rush didn't specifically say so, I might add that due to the uncertainty of the projected path, evacuations which are ordered days in advance often turn out to have been unnecessary and/or in the wrong areas.
Compared to many other storms, Hurricane Irma stayed relatively on track, just about in the middle of all the predictions but despite this, there was enough inaccuracy to thwart evacuation efforts. Based on initial predictions of an Atlantic strike, some Miami residents fled to the northwest. Irma, however, drifted west, devastating the Keys first and then making landfall on the southwest coast, appearing to track along the west coast with the eyewall aimed directly at Tampa. People from Tampa then fled to Orlando, only to find the storm suddenly shifted east again and struck Orlando harder than Tampa. But this was minor. Other storms have made curly paths meandering all over the place, hitting land, bouncing off back into the ocean to gather strength and hit someplace else, even looping back for a second attack.
Florida has a couple of unique characteristics affecting our hurricane preparations. For one thing, the state is a peninsula 500 miles long and 160 miles wide. Hurricanes can hit us from the Atlantic and/or the Gulf. We have a population of 20.6 million people, most of whom are lousy drivers even under the best of conditions, only 2 main freeways heading north out of the state, and just one east-west freeway across the panhandle. That's an awful lot of people to move out on 2 roads, resulting in gridlock whenever a storm is still days away when nobody really knows exactly where it is going to hit.
Although one might think "better safe than sorry," and these mass evacuations do provide a regional economic boon for gas stations and inland hotels, the downside for evacuees can include financial drain, gas shortages, or even death on the road. That is why the mayor of Houston decided not to order mandatory evacuation before hurricane Harvey. His decision was based in large part on what happened in 2005 when over 100 people died in their vehicles while trying to evacuate a couple of days before hurricane Rita made landfall. Let that sink in. More people died on the road trying to evacuate, than did those who stayed behind.
A person who claimed to be a "first responder" in hurricanes replied to my Facebook comment by saying, "People like you make me sick!" He went on to say that I was stupid for not leaving Florida during hurricane Irma, endangering lives by stating that hurricane hysteria is routinely exaggerated, and setting a bad example for others by staying home. He reiterated, "You make me sick!" He further stated that if indeed there is media hype, it is necessary to save lives because stupid people like me won't leave unless we are sufficiently frightened. I was surprised that a professional emergency responder would be unaware that the entire state was not, in fact, under mandatory evacuation and also that lives are often lost on the road during evacuations.
Note, I have not recommended that anybody else stay put. If my house was not built of 10-inch-thick cement walls and I lived on the coast, especially on an island or in a low-lying area like Miami prone to flooding, if a hurricane Category 3 or above appeared to be headed my way, I'd probably evacuate. Mobile homes and most older "stick" houses are not built to withstand a Cat 3 storm, as I will discuss later. Evacuation, though, raises other concerns that people don't talk about very much in the midst of panic on such a large scale. They just say, "You're gonna die, get out of Florida now!" But, where are we supposed to go?
I've already described the problem with gridlock and gas shortages during evacuations. Another factor which may not be immediately apparent to those unfamiliar with the region, is that the southeast United States is by no means a booming metropolis, to say the least. [Cue creepy banjo music.] It's not like other places I've been such as California, front range Colorado or eastern New York, or the mid-Atlantic and northeastern states which, I am told although I don't have personal experience driving there, have good infrastructure and abundant accommodations for travelers. Alabama and Georgia, to where all us millions of Floridians would be fleeing, have limited motels and gas stations. Four days before Irma struck the southern tip of Florida, motels in Alabama were already full.
If you are fortunate enough to find a room, you have two remaining concerns, one being the expense - can you really afford to take several days' vacation out of town every time a hurricane is in the Gulf or the Atlantic? Speaking for myself, I absolutely cannot. I don't even have paid vacation or sick days. If your company stays open, which many do, will you still have a job when you get home?
The other concern is the structural integrity of the building where you are taking shelter. Many of these little southern motels are old "stick" construction, which is not a problem unless the storm changes its course and hits the very place to where people have evacuated, as Irma did. This happens more often than you might think.
One of the things that made me question the concept of evacuation, and ponder my long-term housing options while living in Florida, was what my family and I experienced in hurricane Ivan in 2004. The storm at one point was a Cat 5 while out in the ocean and Mom said, "It's heading right for us!" Every time a storm was anywhere in the Gulf, Mom would totally panic, convinced it was going to hit Panama City, but this one looked like it actually might. My parents decided to take Miss Kitty in their motor home and head east on I-10 to an RV park near Jacksonville, as the projected track looked like it would ultimately go west. They lived in a sturdy brick home and Dad was primarily worried about possible damage to the RV, not to mention, Mom's hysteria wearing on his nerves. They invited me to go with them, but I declined, opting instead to stay at their house.
At the time I was living in a mobile home, a 1996 model, on a farm with 2 horses. It was recommended (but not mandated) that people in my area take their horses up north to a livestock facility in Cottondale. I decided against it, and I'm glad I did, not only because of the potential dangers of trailering horses in traffic jams, but also because of what ended up happening. I turned my horses loose in the pasture, having learned that all the horses who died in hurricane Andrew had been locked in barns and killed when the structure fell on them, whereas the free-roaming horses survived. I made sure they had plenty of hay and water, although springs in the pasture would also provide water, and drove to my parents' house nearby.
The eyewall of Ivan made landfall just west of us in Orange Beach, Alabama, putting Panama City on the more intense eastern side of the storm. And then a strange thing happened. Instead of going northwest as predicted, Ivan decided to go east. At this point I think it was a Cat 3. My parents' brick house was well built, with roll-down shutters on all the windows, and at no time did I feel anxious about the high winds howling outside. I even stood on the front porch with my glass of wine to enjoy the delightful fresh breeze, until it got so strong that it almost blew me over.
Meanwhile, my parents had been stuck in gridlocked traffic on I-10 for many hours and nearly ran out of gas. Mom was a fragile type 1 diabetic whose insulin needed to be kept refrigerated and she also required meals on a regular schedule. This would not be a problem as long as the RV didn't run out of gas, since it had a small fridge. However, Dad could not pull off the road to help Mom with anything. The gridlock finally let up and they made it to their destination safely, running on fumes and prayers. Fortunately there was a gas station at that exit and a restaurant nearby, as suppertime was long past and Mom was having severe hypoglycemia. They got set up at the RV park late that night - only to learn Ivan was now headed in their direction, and needless to say, cars and RVs are significantly less safe than houses in a hurricane!
After the storm passed back in P.C., I drove home to find my horsies perfectly fine, although muddy. They love to roll in the mud and there was plenty of it. A couple of trees had fallen down but the barn and mobile home were still intact. I later learned that as the storm moved inland it spawned a lot of tornadoes to the north and east, and the horse barn in Cottondale was destroyed along with a couple of small motels nearby. I was very glad I'd listened to my intuition and not gone to Cottondale. Mom, Dad and Miss Kitty rode out the SE edge of the weakened storm in their RV and drove home in the rain, exhausted and stressed out, but safe. There was a piece of loose trim but no other significant damage to the RV besides profuse barfing from Miss Kitty due to anxiety.
Close calls with hurricanes that "almost" struck Panama City over the next few years made me seriously contemplate a better long-term plan. Every time a hurricane was in the Gulf, we would speculate as to its target and invariably somebody would suggest, "better evacuate just in case!" I couldn't afford to miss several days of work for every storm that may or may not hit where I live and decided to build a hurricane shelter which would also serve as my office. I learned that permitting and building a shelter with electric and plumbing would be almost as expensive and complicated as building a small house. Dad gave his opinion that "mobile homes aren't meant to be permanent" and encouraged me to go ahead and build the house. He helped fund the project and also installed generators at both of our properties. I am extremely grateful because I wouldn't have been able to do it without his help. I'd bought the farm with the mobile home because I could not afford acreage with a real house.
I did lots of research about materials and structures, and finally settled on building the house out of Aercon block.
I worked closely with the engineers from Aercon and also local contractors who helped install the special "hurricane straps" in the roof beams and the Lexan shutters for the windows. They said the solid 10-inch-thick aerated autoclaved concrete walls would stand up to a midwest-style tornado (not just the little kind we have here). Situated about 15 miles inland, with my deep well going down hundreds of feet into the aquifer and my propane-powered generator, I was all set to ride out future storms. And some neighbors might need to join me, because -
While everybody moans about "stupid" Floridians not evacuating for hurricanes,
nobody addresses the reason
why evacuation is needed in the first place, namely: The stupid building codes do not require mobile homes or older "stick" houses to withstand greater than a Category 2 hurricane!
The best, newest mobile homes with good tie-downs are designed to hold up to Cat 2. New construction homes ("stick" or otherwise), especially those near the coast, must meet strict hurricane standards, while older "stick" homes often don't fare as well as the newer mobile homes in high winds. And yet, it is still perfectly legal for them to be sold and rented out in Florida (and in the midwest, which is even worse). Why is this permitted, when lives are at stake?! Simply because many people cannot afford solid newer-construction homes. The jobs here don't pay enough.
Now, it is true that if you live someplace like the Keys, Miami or Caribbean islands, you would probably want to evacuate anyway due to storm surge and the fact that hurricanes are strongest in that area, where the water is warmest. But what is interesting is that even when Irma's eyewall directly hit the Keys with the full force of Cat 4, the newer concrete houses remained standing! They lost windows and roofs, but the walls were intact. This tells us that it is indeed possible to build homes that can withstand powerful hurricanes. We have the technology, and we're going to need it if rising ocean temps continue to feed bigger and badder storms. As I write this, the third Category 4 storm to hit the United States in less than a month, Maria, has devastated Puerto Rico.
If, as many scientists suggest, this highly unusual storm season is not just a fluke but an ongoing trend, maybe we need to rethink how to best handle hurricanes. While stricter building codes utilizing newer technology are something to aim for in the future, we can't currently do anything about people living in substandard trailers and wood-frame houses without rendering millions homeless. But, that's what we do every time we tell people to hit the road during hurricanes. An alternative might be private shelters for people living in mobile homes on larger properties, a central shelter for each mobile home park or neighborhood, and a bigger public shelter in each county built of newer construction, all with generators. In addition to generators, we need to change the law to allow Floridians to make use of sunshine in the days following a hurricane when the power grid is down, which is currently illegal. Every house, or neighborhood, could be so equipped.
The other big issue obviously is water, in terms of both damage and as a resource. Future building codes in low-lying areas like Houston prone to flooding ought to require elevated or stilt construction, and meanwhile such neighborhoods should each have their own raised shelter. As for consumption, the bottled-water buying frenzy need not exist. Properties like mine out in the country who get our water from deep wells have plenty of water so long as there is emergency power. Public shelters should also have wells. Another technology which for some reason has not been utilized much on the mainland U.S. but is popular in the islands including Hawaii and the Caribbean is cisterns to collect rainwater. A smaller and quite inexpensive variation on this idea is rain barrels for private homes.
Yes, all of the above will cost lots of money. But how much does the government spend now cleaning up the damage after hurricanes? How much money do private citizens, especially the poor living in trailers who can least afford it, spend taking an unwanted and often unnecessary out-of-town "vacation" every time a storm approaches? How much gasoline is expended? What is the death toll on the roads during those frantic evacuations? And assuming the storm actually does strike the predicted location, what is the cost to insurance companies of repairing or replacing the homes destroyed in their absence? Wouldn't it make more sense in the long run, instead of everybody having to repeatedly panic and flee at great expense every single time, to invest now in infrastructure that will prepare us to safely weather future storms?
It seems to me it would be better, especially on the mainland, to keep people off the roads and in sturdy local structures that don't require evacuation. We could focus future evacuation efforts on the islands as necessary, meanwhile rebuilding to better standards in the wake of the current devastation.
Call me cynical, but I doubt such a plan is going to be implemented anytime soon, despite the fact that it would save lives, create jobs and be good for the economy. Congress hasn't been keen to invest in infrastructure anywhere, including here in the hurricane zone. The powers that be would rather people who live in trailers and stick homes flee for their lives, spending money they don't have, every hurricane season while the rich ride it out in their concrete homes with generators, or perhaps fly to their other residences elsewhere. It's easier to blame poor people for being stupid and tax the hell out of the middle class to clean up the damage, than it is to actually do something constructive about the situation.