One has to experience it first hand, to appreciate the destructive power of a category three, or higher, hurricane. Likely, there are localized tornadoes involved as well, but these are of short duration and hard to pinpoint, especially at night. Florida, in many areas, now appears as if it had been under bombardment in a wide-reaching battle. It will take a monumental effort to return this state to itís status of tropical paradise, as indeed it was, especially in most coastal regions. But people will rise to the task, because itís worth it, to live here, despite the gamble of strong winds in the future. A calamitous hurricane is a rare event, unlike the frigid cold and winter blizzards that frequently affect the northern states. Four hurricanes blew through the state this year, yet some areas of Florida, like Tampa, hadnít seen a big blow in eighty years. But property can be restored, thanks to insurance payoffs. This is not the major problem faced by residents of Florida.

When dealing with a hurricane of raging force, the main difficulties to contend with are the evacuation of people from their homes, and the loss of essential utilities like power, water, gas, cable, and such. Also, when power is lost, so too is the ability to pump gasoline for vehicles, to illuminate stores and other businesses, to run freezers, air conditioning, stoves and microwaves. Even toasters are sorely missed. And imagine having no way to prepare morning coffee. Providing food and drinking water, sanitary facilities, and shelter become the most fundamental problems to solve.

Being uprooted for days at a time, contemplating the worse for the home left behind, leaves people in a terrible emotional state. And, ironically, itís those people who have the least that are affected the most. The affluent donít live in puny aluminum mobile homes, or substandard wood-framed apartments with worn and flimsy roofs. Children miss many days of school, and get in the way, to put it bluntly. Itís a very unsettling time for youngsters and their beseiged parents. In large common shelters, the presence of rambunctious children only adds to the strain of those without, mainly the elderly. A bewildering sense of helplessness takes hold of people, as they wait for the word that they can return to their homesÖor not!

A walk or drive through a hurricane battleground reveals the following: First, there are leaves, limbs, shingles, trash, aluminum sheets, and various other types of debris everywhere. Initially, it is impossible to drive along the streets, where trees have fallen, often tearing down wires carrying potent voltages of electricity. A number one priority is to clear the roads, and work crews get at it early on. One has to wonder how these workers can set their personal repair and cleanup problems aside to do this work. It is more than the extra money they can earn. It appears that there is a sense of pride in service to the public that rises above their own interests.

And this is true for the thousands of power company truck crews that arrive from distant states to pitch in. They are often greeted as heroes. And, just as often, criticized for not arriving earlier. Signs can be seen in front of homes, or at the end of side streets, pleading for Florida Power and Light trucks to lend assistance. "FP&L HERE!" followed by an arrow. Insurance policy numbers are printed on some homes with the name of the company insuring the damaged property, now abandoned.

Shortly after the storm passes, blue tarps begin to appear on rooftops. The sidewalks become lined with sofas, stuffed chairs, dolls, mattresses, rugs and padding, anything that might have become drenched and ruined because of roof leaks. FEMA personnel sometimes make these tarps available, but usually the damage is done first. It is almost impossible to buy a tarp after the storm passes. Shingles lying in the street sometimes have roofing nails still attached, and flat tires result. Some facia and soffits that covered the eaves of roofs have been torn loose in the wind and are strewn about, with drain pipes and sections of gutter. Pool and porch screening is ripped or missing in many homes, but this is a matter of least urgency.

Everyone had been advised to store up food and drinking water, fill gas tanks, and buy such items as candles, flashlights and batteries. Plywood was in short supply before the storm hit, as windows were boarded up. The fortunate had aluminum storm shutters. Soon, the snowbirds and other owners began to arrive from the north, and found they had to abandon vehicles that had no more gasoline, or, if they were very lucky and found a station that could operate the pumps, they joined a line of eighty to a hundred other vehicles. The dilemma there was that they could well run out of gas while waiting in line. Generators were hard to come by, and the noise of them running, to bring a bit of light and comfort to a home, filled the night. Some neighbors complained that the noise from the generator next door kept them awake.

So wide spread is the destruction that itís a wild scramble to have damage assessed, and to get insurance agents to validate claims. There are gougers afoot in the land, and looters as well. National Guard troops are called into service to aid local police forces. It is next to impossible to find a tradesman to fix a roof. Roofers are in demand, and find themselves in an enviable position. A call to a roofer advertising free estimates in the Yellow Pages, likely results in the scoffing explanation that it will cost $85 (or more) merely to have him drop by and take a look. Others tell you that they are only interested in replacing entire roofs, not merely handfuls of shingles. They inform one that they will take a peek at worst cases only, and it could be weeks, even months before they can remove tarps and do the job.

Meanwhile, the slow cleanup work goes on. Trees and shrubs have been damaged or ripped from the earth. Soft stemmed flowers are destroyed. So much white insulation has been blown loose from the attics of some homes that it looks like it snowed in the neighborhood. The stuff persistently clings to lawns and is hard to sweep or rake up.

Larders begin to empty, and the hunt for a grocery store with power goes on. The search draws precious gas from near empty tanks, as vehicles cope with constant stop and go driving, there being no traffic lights at intersections. Roadsides have eroded by waterways, and some bridge uprights have been compromised by storm surges, so any drive leads to traffic jams. Driversí eyes focus on the gas gauge, hopefully flicking to empty gas stations that they pass.

Next to the ocean, the worst disasters can be viewed, where the raging surf cut its way through dunes, under boardwalks, and viciously slapped against the foundations of homes and condominiums. Some properties are instantly condemned as unlivable. Docks and piers stand stripped of planking, their forlorn pilings pointing to the sky. Boats can be found in the most unlikely places, up in the crotch of a tree, lying across the centerline on a road, upside down in the water with barnacle encrusted hull airing out, or shattered against a rock jetty. Large crane trucks will soon be on the scene to lift these wrecks to the beds of trucks for removal.

Mobile home parks offer the most horrendous view of destruction. It is mandatory that these homes be evacuated when a hurricane approaches, as it is on barrier islands that face the ocean or rivers, where flooding and high surf are expected. Supposedly, the newer mobile homes, now called manufactured housing, stand a better chance against high winds, but it is difficult to discern the difference with aluminum sheets covering the landscape. Porches and carports are the first to be ripped off, and next come the roofs. It is difficult to believe that any insurance company would offer coverage for these flimsy sheds, usually havens of the poorest people, or winter cottages for snowbirds, who remain safe from bodily injury in the north during hurricane season.

Without television, people must rely on transistor radios for the news, the very bad news! For families that are split up in these circumstances, there is the gnawing worry for others, who were in harms way. Without telephone contact, those fears multiply. The cell phone grows in importance, and everyone plans to get one after things settle down.

Another aspect of this tragic event is seen as one drives past the many groves of citrus trees, now barren from the passage of hurricane winds. Literally tens of thousands of pieces of fruit dot the earth, left there to rot. Many migrant workers will be without income during this season. It is reported that FEMA is arranging for these itinerant pickers to collect unemployment benefits. And, of course, hurricanes are responsible for tremendous loss of income elsewhere through the state.

Gradually, the flooding recedes, the electricity returns, the cleanup begins in earnest. People return home from temporary shelters to find whatever awaits them. Storm shutters begin to come down, but first, with an eye to the eastern Atlantic. Are four major hurricanes all that can be expected this year? Not since 1886 has this record been matched, and that was in Texas. Is Florida still vulnerable during this hurricane season?

~ Richard McCusker (jotoma@bellsouth.net)

© October 2004


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