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Joe Henderson: Keeping eye on Hurricane Irma while remembering 2004

in Statewide/Top Headlines by

I guess I should be scared that North Korea wants to vaporize us, but just now watching a nasty lady named Irma churn her way through the Atlantic, maybe toward us, has priority on my freak-out list.

I fear for the wonderful U.S. Virgin Islands, where I just visited about six weeks ago. They appear to be in the hurricane’s path. But after that, I can’t help wondering if this isn’t the “one” that could turn coastal Florida into the next catastrophe. It has happened before.

If you have lived in Florida for long, you surely remember 2004. That’s when four hurricanes used the state as a punching bag over six weeks, bringing death, billions of dollars in devastation, and long-term human misery.

Charley, with its 150-mph punch, blew ashore in Port Charlotte. Frances hit Palm Beach with 105-mph winds, causing parts of Interstate 95 to collapse. Ivan brought 120-mph force to Pensacola and destroyed parts of the Escambia Bay bridge.

Jeanne hit Palm Beach again with 120-mph winds.

Residents who go farther back can remember the unspeakable devastation Hurricane Andrew brought to Homestead. It looked like the hand of God had just swept across that part of the planet, like someone clearing off a shelf.

I remember all of that, so I don’t know about you but watching that monster Irma headed in this general direction, maybe, is enough to sound the bugle charge to be ready – assuming you can be ready for a storm of that size and force.

Maybe it will prove to be just another hurricane drill, where we feel uneasy for a few days before the storm turns north and, we all pray, out to sea. After what we just in Texas, though, Floridians – particularly on the east coast – aren’t taking any chances.

The devastation from Hurricane Matthew last summer, particularly to the wonderful city of St. Augustine, is still fresh for many people. And this forecast is another reminder that the force of nature can be unfathomable.

The Sun-Sentinel did an interesting retrospective on the 10-year anniversary of the 2004 carnage, pointing out that we are better prepared today when one of these storms makes landfall.

As the newspaper wrote, social media didn’t exist in 2004. Forecasting wasn’t as accurate as it is now. People have much more warning than they did before, and shelters have more time to prepare.

But we saw in Houston that while preparation can mitigate the damage, a storm like the one that struck Texas is going to leave devastation in its wake and there isn’t much anyone can do about it. Florida, like Houston, is overbuilt. If an evacuation order comes, too many people would be trying to crowd into too little space to escape.

What to do?

Well, keep an eye on the forecast (ok, maybe two eyes). Don’t wait too late to make a plan. Be alert, be informed, and just understand one important thing. If we get lucky this time, it just means we’re overdue.

Joe Henderson has had a 45-year career in newspapers, including the last nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. He covered a large variety of things, primarily in sports but also including hard news. The two intertwined in the decade-long search to bring Major League Baseball to the area. Henderson was also City Hall reporter for two years and covered all sides of the sales tax issue that ultimately led to the construction of Raymond James Stadium. He served as a full-time sports columnist for about 10 years before moving to the metro news columnist for the last 4 ½ years. Henderson has numerous local, state and national writing awards. He has been married to his wife, Elaine, for nearly 35 years and has two grown sons – Ben and Patrick.

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