2014-06-04 / Top News

Floridians suffering from hurricane amnesia

Dearth of storms, and tropical tenderfoots, worry first responders and emergency managers, who say we aren’t prepared for season

The annual week-long storm drill at FPL’s Category 5 Command Center. 
ADAM BARON / FLORIDA WEEKLY The annual week-long storm drill at FPL’s Category 5 Command Center. ADAM BARON / FLORIDA WEEKLY Kieran Bhatia first felt an affinity for meteorology as a sixth-grade student in Maryland, when he realized how much the colors he would see on a radar screen affected his sports schedule. His teacher always had radar on in the back of the classroom. Young Kieran found it fascinating how those colors would forecast his afternoons. Plus, he thought it was cool how everyone liked to talk about the weather.

Now a Ph.D. student at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School, Mr. Bhatia has been drawn to the study of hurricanes, though he has yet to live through one. He is not alone.

Florida has had eight years of storms staying away and eight years of people moving in. Looking at the state’s longest hurricane drought in history — well, the longest drought on record since 1851 — coupled with the huge influx of new residents — Florida boasts four cities on Forbes’ latest Top 20 list of America’s fastest growing cities — Mr. Bhatia fears there may be a knowledge deficit in public preparedness.

The “Canes on Canes” team from University of Miami Rosenstiel School, from left: Brian McNoldy, Falko Judt, Kieran Bhatia, Jason Godwin and Matt Onderlinde. 
COURTESY PHOTO The “Canes on Canes” team from University of Miami Rosenstiel School, from left: Brian McNoldy, Falko Judt, Kieran Bhatia, Jason Godwin and Matt Onderlinde. COURTESY PHOTO Again, he is not alone.

Florida Power & Light executives say they can’t sleep at night, tossingand turning over a complacent public. Emergency management directors worry there’s a bit of communal “amnesia,” as Florida’s going on nine years with no hurricane landfalls.

FPL estimates 40 percent of its customer base, or close to 4 million people, have never experienced a major hurricane. They are new customers. The Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council reports a 50 percent turnover rate in demographics every eight years, meaning snowbirds who were weathered to tropical storms may have been replaced by tropical tenderfoots. And the Palm Beach County Division of Emergency Management says statistics show 90 percent of people don’t even know if they live in a storm-surge evacuation zone.

JOHNSON JOHNSON This new blood and lapse of memory motivated Mr. Bhatia to gather his Ph.D. buddies and hit the ground running, forming a “Canes on Canes” weather team with a calling to inform communities: “Here’s what scientists want you to know when you see what you see on TV.”

“People look at the graphics they see on TV with more of a skeptical eye than an informed eye,” Mr. Bhatia says. “They don’t know how worried they should be.”

One of the slides in the “Canes on Canes” presentation carries the headline, “With great weather comes great responsibility,” putting a youthful, Spider-Man spin on the subject matter. The ensuing slide shows the paths of the 58 hurricanes that have passed through South Florida since 1851, including 31 major storms; the density of color makes it look like the peninsula has been hit by a Pink Floyd laser light show.

Through the fresh presentation, the students hope to impart messages like:

¦ A larger storm does not mean a stronger storm, as Mr. Bhatia points out, “Hurricane Andrew was a very small storm but one of the strongest hurricanes to make landfall in the U.S.”

¦ There’s more to the story than the category. Only one mile per hour separates a Category 1 from a Category 2. Only one mile per hour separates a Category 3 from a Category 4. Mr. Bhatia says, “Categories, yes, they are important and they are scientifically-grounded, but at the same time, it’s just a peak wind speed, it’s not something we want someone at home to look at and say, ‘OK, I’m basing all my decisions on if it’s a Category 1 versus a Category 3.”

¦ There’s more to the storm than the fastest observed wind speed. Remember the water. Mr. Bhatia says the flooding due to storm surge is a silent killer; it does not receive a lot of attention but statistically, it is the No. 1 cause of deaths in hurricanes.

“A lot of people take a sigh of relief when August passes and there’s no hurricane, but the peak for South Florida is October,” Mr. Bhatia says. “I think people need to realize that when they’re getting ready for Halloween, they’re also getting ready for the peak of hurricane season.”

The most enlightening part of the presentation may be the explanation surrounding the “cone of uncertainty,” the storm projection that carries a name as ominous-sounding as some “Princess Bride” character. Here are the takeaway points of the cone:

¦ Scientists design the cone based on what happened two out of three times in the past five years, so one out of three times, scientists expect the storm’s track to go outside the cone.

¦ Scientists will use the same forecast cone all season long, no matter the storm. Uncertainty may be higher in some storms than others, but all season through, you’ll see the same cookiecutter cone on TV.

¦ The cone shows the probable path of the center of the storm, not impact. A storm is much larger than the center of its track. Impact can extend far beyond the cone, even if the forecast track is correct.

“Just because you’re not in the cone, you have to realize that one out of three times, your storm center is forecast to go outside of your cone,” Mr. Bhatia says. Everyone should be prepared, not just the cone-destined.

On the flip side, he adds, “If two out of three times the center’s going to come over you, that should be enough to start preparing, right?”

Asked if the science is saying Florida’s due, since the state’s months away from being nine years hurricane-free, Mr. Bhatia says, “The science is telling us that South Florida is always due. Historically, one out of every three years we’ll have a hurricane that affects South Florida, so I think every year, you should be expecting a hurricane to come … Florida’s very unique in that we have great weather but it comes with a price … I’d say we’re always due, not to let your guard down because of recent trends, for all we know, 2014-2015 could be just like 2004-2005.”

FPL President Eric Silagy punctuates this “not a question of if, but when” view. “We are going to be hit by a storm at some point and that’s why we all need to prepare as if it’s going to be this season,” he says.

In the years since Florida’s last hurricane, Mr. Silagy says FPL has prepared by investing $1.4 billion to harden its system; inspecting all power poles (over a million); inspecting more than 15,000 miles of line (Mr. Silagy lends perspective by saying that’s the equivalent of going from Florida to California round-trip twice); clearing vegetation from over 100,000 miles of line, (which Mr. Silagy equates to going around the world four times), all thanks to the time Mother Nature has given them. Mr. Silagy prays people don’t take this time for granted. He encourages everyone to prepare. “That’s what we do here at FPL,” he says. “Every day that we’re not actually responding to a storm, we are preparing for a storm.”

Mr. Silagy says this at FPL’s Physical Distribution Center and Category 5 Command Center in Riviera Beach during the utility’s week-long, simulatedstorm drill. Every year, FPL makes up a fictional, virtual hurricane so employees can hone their craft at post-storm power restoration. This year virtual Hurricane Echo strengthened to a Category 3, making landfall in Highland Beach. Storm surge swelled up to nine feet in Palm Beach. Six to 12 inches of rain fell throughout the state. Five tornadoes spun off the storm. The hurricane exited near Jacksonville.

“We don’t drill to understand what we do well,” Mr. Silagy says. “We really drill to understand where we can do better, where there are gaps, where we can improve.”

Wanting employees to be hit by the element of surprise, much like a real storm, FPL meteorologists threw makebelieve curveballs at them, like the flooding of a substation, or loss of a gas line, all on day one.

In early May, the media invited on day five of the drill, Mr. Silagy stands next to a general in the Florida National Guard. Mr. Silagy wears a blue shirt and black loafers. The general wears camouflage and black boots. FPL’s signature lightning strike stitched over Mr. Silagy’s heart. The words “U.S. Air Force” stitched over the general’s heart.

Mr. Silagy announces a “unique” partnership with the Florida National Guard, where a mid-level officer will be embedded for six months with FPL’s emergency preparedness unit, allowing the two entities to develop a closer relationship before an event occurs, so they can react better together when it does occur.

“You can’t do a storm restoration without logistics, and I would argue there’s probably no better entity in the world than the U.S. military on handling logistics,” Mr. Silagy says. “And as good as we think we are at FPL with logistics, I’m looking forward to learning some lessons.”

Taking the mike, Brigadier Gen. James Eifert adds, “Better integration with our fellow first responders is no longer a buzzword or a catchphrase, it’s an imperative. Restoring power to the citizens of Florida is more than just a metric, it’s about saving lives. … We need to better understand the vulnerabilities of our power grid, our water supply … so we can better serve our citizenry.”

Bill Johnson, director of the Palm Beach County Division of Emergency Management, does not want people to approach storm season solely relying on government. “We are not the safety net,” he says. “They need to be prepared … We’ve got our plans in place. It’s important our citizens have their plans in place, as well.”

This season the county is pushing a “Know Your Zone” campaign. Mr. Johnson describes the campaign as aggressive and comprehensive. He says their message has not changed, but they have reshaped it, simplified it to target a broader audience.

The message is four-fold: “Make a plan. Build a kit. Be informed. Get involved.”

Emergency management even revamped their website, shortening their web address to the memorable www.readyPBC.org. And the department added the smartphone app DART, short for Disaster Awareness & Recovery Tool.

“We want to target millennials, the younger generation, and allow them to push the message up to our elderly population,” Mr. Johnson says.

Addressing storm surge, Mr. Johnson shares the county mantra: “Hide from the wind. Run from the water.” At maximum, 250,000 people would have to evacuate Palm Beach County in the event of a Category 5 storm, he says.

Concerned that the nervousness people used to attach to the start of hurricane season may have drifted apart like clouds in the sky, Mr. Johnson says he cannot emphasize enough, “Preparedness is the key.” ¦

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