Yes Virginia, hurricanes are real … so don’t shoot the messenger

September 18, 2017
By Marcy Shortuse

You will have to forgive me this week as far as the content of the paper goes, our office has had no way to put out a newspaper this week. We have no power, no phones, no internet. This paper was created in my home in South Gulf Cove, put on a thumb drive and taken back to the island. How it will get to the printer is Daniel’s problem at this point, I’ve done my part. We have pictures, we have a story to tell, and for those just utterly bored with the whole situation I apologize. September on the island usually means the only excitement we have is a storm. This is THE month for strong hurricanes, after all.
Stressful situations like we faced in the past week bring out the best and worst in people. For some people their first thought it to take advantage of those nearest to them, for others their first thought is to help people. We’ve all heard the stories by this time, from the guys looting the Footlocker store (one farcical news service had a headline that read, “Men save shoes from flood”) to people giving out cold water to those stuck in traffic.
If you’ve lived in Florida for any length of time you’ve been through a lot of close calls and near misses with hurricanes and tropical storms. Once hurricane season starts it usually isn’t long before a blip is spotted headed off the coast of Africa and the waiting game begins. It’s been that way since satellite radar was created, and it can be nerve wracking.
For some people, just the threat of multiple hurricanes in one season is enough for them to move. “I would NEVER live there” they say, while sitting in the middle of Tornado Alley or in California. Coming from the Midwest, from a place where I quite often had to lug my favorite childhood possessions down into the basement three or four times a week, a hurricane doesn’t seem quite as bad. You have days to prepare, not minutes or seconds. You prepare for an earthquake by running to the nearest door frame without any time at all to prepare.
Then you have people who have lived through hurricanes like Andrew or Charley. Many of these people are the ones with hurricane kits that would make a prepper stare uncomfortably at his shoes. Others assimilate a lackadaisical attitude that says, “Bring it on, I’m done with this life anyway.” I was here for Charley, though not in the brunt of it. We had to leave at the last second, because the storm that was headed for Tampa decided to stop here instead.
Hurricanes are fickle creatures. Sometimes they do just as the forecasters predict, other times they seem move chaotically with no rhyme or reason at all. Jose, this little guy who looks to be headed for the east coast of Florida, originally looked like he was headed out into the Atlantic. He decided to make a loop-de- loop and come back this way.
Irma was pretty chaotic; as she approached Florida she bobbed and weaved like a prizefighter. Quite often when a hurricane acts like that people get more and more nervous … especially those who remember Charley. This leads to a distrust in weather forecasters, especially now that we begin to have 24-hour coverage of the blessed events days in advance.
Unfortunately, predicting the future plans of Mother Nature has always been impossible. In Illinois we would have snow in May and 80 degree temperatures in November. In Florida the weather patterns are a bit more stable – it’s a little hot, then it’s pretty hot, then it gets really, really hot. I remember a January just a few years ago we thought we were all going to freeze, and we were elated to wake up and find that people just an hour or so north of us had snow flurries. THAT was unusual weather for Florida, but hurricanes are not.
In 2004 we got slammed again, and again, and again with big storms. After the third or fourth we just cast a glaring eye toward the television … except for those who got hit hard by Charley. That storm drove more people to move away than I’ve ever known, and with good reason. If you were in Port Charlotte or Punta Gorda in the weeks that followed you saw a true form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: They felt like they had seen the face of the devil but had been brought back from the dead by God. Some people died in that storm, right down the road from us. There wasn’t a square inch of ground that wasn’t covered by some form of litter or leaf.
There have been a few, but for our little area of Florida there hasn’t been any major damage done since 2004. People have died in rip currents and heavy tides (almost all while swimming during or after a storm), that’s true. But as far as a widespread pattern of devastation there has been none. Boca Grande and the Cape Haze Peninsula have remained in a bubble.
I guess it’s no surprise then that when Irma came up to our door it was a stressful time. Because of her size there was no easy way to figure out how to get out of her path. When she became a Category 4, then 5, then, 4, then 5, she was still headed in our general vicinity the whole time. You can have your kit ready, you can buy non-perishable food and cases of water, put up the storm shutters and Katy bar the door … but when that day arrives when it’s scheduled to hit in about 48 hours and has no apparent plans to back down from landfall at your back door you can decide to stay or you can get out.
For most people, having young kids makes that decision for them. I can’t tell you the amount of people I knew in Illinois who jumped at the sound of thunder in the distance, because they had been in a bad tornado when they were young. It affected them to their core, it changed their personality. It might have been their very first taste of not being invincible. That’s a feeling many don’t have until they’re in a bad car accident, or have a heart attack. Others, like me, came out with a fierce love for storms that begs to lead them on a path that is somewhat stupid.
Many people didn’t just leave to evacuation zones for Irma, or just cross over the state. Because she continued to wobble and was so large they left the state all together. I ended up way too far away to help my mom, and then some semblance of it hit there anyway. Believe me, watching that storm was the best part of that trip.
When Irma finally hit Marco Island and Naples it was a mess. It was not, however, the worst mess of all. A friend of mine told me there were two worst case scenarios – Irma could have moved to the west just offshore from where we live and put us in the northeast quadrant of her sights. That is the worst side of a storm to be on. But she also could have decided to slow down and sat churning, just offshore, and “stirred the pot” that is Southwest Florida. Hurricane Harvey showed us what happens when a storm does that.
When she went the other way it wasn’t pretty for a whole lot of people across the state. Homes were destroyed, people died. For some people here it brought a profound sense of thankfulness, a new lease on life and a peace exhibited even while they were cutting up a 30-foot tree in their driveway with a chainsaw. For others it brought out some sort of God complex, like they were invincible. Many of those people decided the craziness that ensued afterward was from a media frenzy, that weather forecasters hadn’t done their job, and that they would not evacuate because it was even more dangerous that staying in a storm.
People were complaining they only received 60 mph winds when they were “supposed” to be 140. Or that storm surge “couldn’t” happen in the area they lived in because they were miles from big water. They wanted to find some sort of conspiracy in the fact the bottled water and gas companies wanted a little extra boost to their summer income, I suppose.
I feel that does a great disservice to people south of us, particularly in Marco Island, the Florida Keys and most certainly in the Caribbean. They sure aren’t feeling like the weather forecasters were wrong, and they probably don’t feel the storm was overhyped. But it’s easy to say that when you are safe, your family is safe and you have a house to live in.
It brought out bitterness in people. They needed someone to blame for their inconvenience, and if it wasn’t directed at people who were trying to help them it was directed toward the media. Evacuation for most was a nightmare, especially given the fact there really wasn’t anywhere “safe” in Florida to go. Having no power for days, living in a smelly, waterlogged house and eating gas station snacks with kids who had no electronics to amuse them underfoot wasn’t fun. Watching people fight in the Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot wasn’t cool at all. Hearing about the homes of first responders being looted while they were hard at work made us furious. Like I said, the best comes out along with the worst.
But all of that is still better than watching the roof come off your home while you’re hanging on to your kids for dear life, and that happened to some people in this storm.
This wasn’t easy for anyone, even the meteorologists. They were responsible for the lives of millions and millions of people, even if they did hype the storm. After all, what don’t they hype? It’s OK if it’s a ‘Noles game but not a storm? Or Games of Thrones? Or America’s Got Talent?
Fancy electronics and years of school don’t mean anything to a hurricane. They do what they want, and they always have. We’ve been having hurricanes long before reports of global warming, many of them far worse than anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes or our grandparents’ lifetimes.
Hurricanes are a part of life here. They happen, and quite often they don’t do exactly what you want them to do.
I didn’t go to school to forecast weather. I’m not a sea turtle that has some innate sense to build up by the seawall instead of the middle of the beach. I’m not a frigate bird that comes inshore to seek shelter from a storm that is two days away. I’m just a human. Just like the weather forecasters. I may not drive hours away next time unless, like this time, I have to. But I’m going to listen, and prepare, and more than likely go against my urge to dance in the storm. That’s all I can do until hurricane forecasts became foolproof, or God himself hands us his yearly hurricane agenda. And waiting for that might take a very long time.
Marcy Shortuse is the editor of the Boca Beacon. She can be reached at