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Written by John Ise, BT Contributor   
July 2018

Expect to be on your own after a hurricane

TPix_JohnIse_7-18o live in South Florida is to play an annual game of Russian roulette. From June through November, Miami is a six-month target of Mother Nature’s wrath as she aimlessly shoots hurricanes from the coast of western Africa. Year by year we nervously look at satellite images of Atlantic hurricane formations and trajectories, pleading to a merciful Almighty to steer storms away from our shores.

My first experience with a hurricane occurred in 1998 in the mountains of Haiti, when Hurricane Georges walloped the island. It was my second day in the country. I had little working knowledge of Creole and contracted food poisoning that, of course, led to an embarrassing loss of…errr…bowel control that fueled a raging fever.

Owing to an inaccessible latrine, I had to venture outside 12 times, progressively becoming dehydrated and weak, into the screaming rage and fury of a 120-mph hurricane that blasted Haiti’s mountains like howitzers. I’m forever scarred, but to this day, Haitian kids take delight in my misery when I retell the story. I digress.

Closer to home, Hurricane Irma’s memories are, for the most part, still fresh, if not raw. Remember the satellite photo of Irma where its Texas-size cloud mass could be gauged in seeing the curvature of the Earth? When something of that size and ferocity is coming your way, an inner urge to repent one’s sins wells up. Had it not been the support of my family and a good friend named Jack Daniels, I’m not sure how I would have coped.

And yet Miami pretty much lucked out again. Sure, some lost power for up to three weeks and the tree canopy was mowed down, but within 30 days of Irma, other than piles of uncollected debris, signs of the storm’s lasting impact were rare.

Now consider the fact that what we in northern Miami-Dade County really experienced was more Tropical Storm Irma than Hurricane Irma. In truth, what we went through was the most minimal definition of a Category 1 storm, and for a measly four hours.

Think about that for a second…four hours of a weak Category 1 hurricane and the quantity of havoc that it wrought. While there were gusts that reached hurricane strength of 95 mph or more, the sustained winds were all around 75 mph. Now for fun, just imagine that Irma’s strength, impact, and sustained duration are all multiplied by a factor of three or four.

Category 5 Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, resulting in at least 4645 deaths (whereas New Orleans’s Katrina resulted in 1833) -- and at the time of this writing, 13,000 Puerto Ricans still lack power, a full eight months after the event. And while our infrastructure is certainly superior to Puerto Rico’s, can anyone honestly say we’re ready for the impact of a direct hit from a Category 4 or Category 5 hurricane?

While extreme wind is most commonly associated with hurricanes, it’s a five- to ten-foot storm surge that poses the greatest risk to South Florida. Surging ocean waters could flood our coast and canals, swamp our sewers and septic systems, and contaminate our drinking water.

Read the Miami Shores “Phase 1 Flood Vulnerability Assessment Report” by Coastal Risk Consulting, and accept that a Category 4 hurricane will generate a surge that may swamp almost all areas of Miami Shores, Biscayne Park, and El Portal.

And if you still find yourself blasé about the global effects of climate change, read Jeff Goodall’s phenomenal The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World. The book opens with an imagined 2037 Category 5 hurricane hitting Miami. South Beach is underwater, buildings are swept from their foundations, raw sewage floods neighborhoods, freshwater is salinized, and mosquitoes fuel Zika and dengue outbreaks. The city is a large disaster zone. A few decades later, coastal Miami is reclaimed by the seas, serving as a global destination for scuba divers. Yikes!

Locally, Miami Shores Village manager Tom Benton hosted a sparsely attended hurricane preparedness workshop. He bluntly shared that Village residents aren’t prepared to deal with the effects of a hurricane: no food, no power, cold showers, and limited services. Benton bemoaned how unhinged some residents became after three days without power. Calls flooded Village Hall with demands for power to be restored, and social media swelled with over-the-top griping.

My personal favorite backlash came from John Binford, who wrote on Facebook: “So tired of hearing all you snobby, stuck-up, entitled babies crying about having no power as you sit inside your half-million-dollar (or more) house. The Mayor or anyone for that fact can’t pick up their magic f--ing wand and poof, FPL is here.”

All of this points to the need for residents to prepare themselves and their families for hurricanes and self-sufficiency. Is any BT reader really, really, really ready for a month without power? You know the drill: Get flashlights, batteries, nonperishable food, portable radios, a tub full of water (to flush toilets), cash, propane for the grill, and a full tank of gas for the car. The June Village newsletter was chock full of preparedness info.

There are legitimate larger policy issues for local leaders to contemplate. While FPL visibly sprang into action after Irma, a local report by WLRN pointed to Keys Energy Service as the gold standard for energy restoration.

The report, titled “In Hard-Hit Keys, Power Was Restored within Days after Hurricane Irma,” showcased the superior service of the publicly owned utility, even though Irma hit the lower Keys so hard it was gauged a Category 4 there. The secret was a relentless hardening of infrastructure and the merciless trimming of tree canopy around powerlines. Hence, even though the Keys took a direct hit, power was restored quickly.

After Irma, Miami Shores Mayor Mac Glinn mused about the possibility of burying FP&L power lines, an expensive, messy, and lengthy proposition. Plus, as FPL itself points out, buried lines “are more susceptible to water intrusion and local flood damage, which can make repairs more time-consuming and costly. Overhead facility damage is easier to locate than underground and can generally be repaired quicker.”

Perhaps the best preparation is to lean on your neighbors and build a community network of resilience. Neighbors sharing a chainsaws and machetes can often clean up and remove debris more quickly than municipal services can.

Rising sea levels, a warming planet, and intense hurricanes are central components of our new reality in low-lying, porous Miami -- as real as gravity. Hurricanes will strike again, and you’ll be on your own, at least temporarily. Then you’ll need to rely on your neighbors to recover. Do your part.

 

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