Florida. The name conjures images to people from around the globe. Sure, most people imagine the beautiful beaches, Disney, NASA, the Daytona 500 and others, but one cannot think of the State of Florida and not think hurricanes. Hurricanes are not concerns for Florida residents only, no way, as we have witnessed many of the most destructive hurricanes in the United States impacting states such as Louisiana, North Carolina and South Carolina, Texas, even New York State! The reality is that a major hurricane (Category 3 or above) is going to wreak havoc and devastation anywhere the storm impacts. This article is not about the destructiveness of hurricanes or a plan for surviving a major hurricane, instead, I’d like to shed some light on the unique challenges that major hurricanes pose to residents of the State of Florida.
I am a Floridian, born and raised. I’ve lived my entire life residing in this state. I grew up near Cocoa Beach, have lived in Tallahassee and currently reside in Jacksonville. I have been an active participant in most every hurricane since my birth in 1979. During that time I have hunkered down for storms, evacuated for storms, witnessed the destruction of homes, roofs, windows and trees due to hurricanes. I have lived without electricity for days and weeks, and unfortunately witnessed friends and neighbors who have suffered complete losses due to hurricanes. There is no other way to put it….hurricanes are horrible. They destroy, kill and devastate. And yet, with God’s grace, we overcome. Along the way, I have learned a few lessons that I would like to share.
In case you were unaware, the State of Florida is at the extreme southeastern portion of America. In reality the state is a giant peninsula. Florida is surrounded by water on three sides with over 1,300 miles of coastline. The waters of the Southern Atlantic, Straights of Florida and the Gulf of Mexico are warm year round and are perfect breeding grounds for storms to strengthen from Tropical Storm to major hurricane overnight. In addition, unlike other states that hurricanes impact, due to the peninsular shape of Florida, evacuation routes are limited to just two Interstate highways and a handful of State Highways and local routes. Florida also boasts a population of nearly 22 million people, the majority of which reside on the peninsular portion of land mass. In other words, when evacuations are ordered, gridlock ensues.
The population grows every year in the state with many new residents who have no clue when it comes to hurricane preparedness and evacuation. State and local officials do a fantastic job of making sure that residents receive the information needed with regards to storm shelters, flood zones, items to prepare and evacuation routes, but unfortunately the implementation from residents come too late in my opinion. So what to do?
By The Numbers
First. Be aware of the storm. Does this sound ridiculous? Of course it does. I am not ashamed to admit that I faced this dilemma in 2001. While attending college in Tallahassee, my wife and I were typical poor college kids. Needless to say, we did not own a television or follow local radio reports. Tropical Storm Barry was moving into the Panhandle from the warm waters of The Gulf of Mexico towards Tallahassee unbeknownst to us. What resulted was record rainfall with flash flooding while both of us were away from home that evening. The entire city was caught off guard. Electricity was lost, cell towers were offline, streets flooded, disabled vehicles clogged local roads, there were even a few deaths from drowning. Both my wife and I lost our cars due to rapidly rising waters. Point is, Be aware of the storm!
Second. For a major hurricane, have a evacuation destination out of the State. I cannot stress this enough. Get out of Florida! I have witnessed people evacuate the East Coast and head to the West Coast, and vice-versa, only to get caught in a rapid shifting hurricane! They would have been better off staying put, instead they are holed up in a hotel, out of power, no preps, in the middle of a hurricane. Never make the mistake of assuming that the hurricane will not affect another portion of the State. Florida is around 160 miles wide for the central peninsular portion of the State. Hurricanes are generally 300 miles wide. When hurricanes make landfall, on either coast, you will be impacted if you are in the peninsular portion, guaranteed. If you are in the panhandle portion of the state, there is a better chance of missing the direct impact of a hurricane. But with the elusiveness of the hurricane’s track, I would evacuate if I were within 150 miles of a Category 3 or larger storm. The goal is to put as many miles between you and the point of impact. Panhandle evacuations are oftentimes no safer if you head North into neighboring Alabama or Georgia. The hurricane will chase you. You may need to adjust your destination East or West away from the storm’s path.
Third. Evacuate early. How early? If you reside in the southern portion of the state or the Florida Keys, no less than 4-5 days before landfall, the central portion 3-4 days and the northern portion 2-3 days. Again, this is before anticipated landfall. You may be asking yourself, “Why so early?” Prior to landfall, all traffic in Florida will increase. Residents will be driving around attempting to purchase preparations for the storm. Shipping trucks, fuel trucks, National Guard and emergency vehicles will be pouring into the state with anticipation of the hurricane. Inside of 3 days to landfall, the unprepared will be frantic and driving erratically searching for water, plywood, bread and gas. Your best bet is to avoid these types at all cost. They will be panicked, short-tempered and ready to engage. By evacuating earlier you also will avoid the bumper to bumper gridlock of the highways. The Interstates and Highways will be clogged. This cannot be stated enough. I’ve had family members stuck in traffic for 8 hours, only to move 60 miles, because they delayed evacuation. In addition, another benefit of earlier evacuation is that you arrive safely at your destination with time to watch the hurricane’s path and plan a safe return. Hurricanes are very unpredictable and change paths fast. If the storm shifts in it’s path, you may be able to get an early start back toward home. Please be advised that after the storm passes, you will be limited to travel. Road closures, downed trees and flooding prohibit movement. This is especially true regarding barrier islands. Due to bridge closures, it’s likely that you cannot enter. One thing all evacuees have in common is the desire to return home ASAP. Proceed with caution.
Fourth. Preparations. Your reading Survival Blog, have your preps ready. The most important preparation you need is a destination that you are familiar with to evacuate. I have heard stories of people evacuating with no plan, only to end up in an undesirable part of town in a raunchy hourly-rate motel. When a hurricane is imminent and evacuation orders are given, expect lodging throughout Florida, and the nearer portions of Georgia, Alabama and even Mississippi to be full. In your hurricane preps, make absolutely sure that you have a safe destination for your family and pets. I am fortunate to have family in surrounding states, but if I didn’t, I would choose a safe location that I am familiar and have visited before.
If you decide to stay, expect the worst, prepare for the worst and pray for the best. The evacuation timeline applies here as well. I would be ready three days before landfall at a minimum! In addition to your long-term and storm preps, make sure you have everything you need days before the storm hits. Stores will be stripped bare of essentials, gas will dry up, ice will become critical and then impossible to find, propane refilling stations will have 30+ guys standing in line all day long. You can forget about purchasing a generator and cabling. People literally lose their mind with an approaching hurricane. If you do not have to be out among the un-prepared….don’t!
Fifth. Mindset. All the preparations you buy cannot substitute a proper mindset. Experiencing a hurricane is a uniquely singular event that can test even the most prepared individual. Tornados and other destructive weather events possess similarities, but none offer the combination of situations a hurricane presents. For example, with a hurricane, you have months to prepare, weeks of warning and days of all-out panic with the coming storm. It’s like the anticipation of Christmas morning as a child, except you lose everything rather than gain it! Schools and businesses are closing, the local media is running non-stop hurricane coverage and you have mission-critical decisions to make with regards to evacuations and timing, while your neighbors are losing their minds. A clear and focused mindset is critical to making these decisions. The ritual of watching the weather updates, witnessing the wrath of death and destruction during the storm’s approach is a psychological exercise that will test even the most stoic.
During this period, most people make the mistake of hasty and erratic decisions based on a haughty “I will escape this” attitude. This results in people to make critical mistakes that sometimes prove to be deadly once the storm hits. The loss of sanity and reason are the norm in the events leading up to landfall, and yet, sometimes all for naught. The storm may simply pass and impact our neighbors in the Carolinas or in Gulf States. Many a weatherman have been on location, preaching gloom and doom, anticipating the storm with live coverage, only to have the storm miss them completely.
What happens next is automatic. The non-prepared residents ridicule those who were prepared and or evacuated. The same people who less than 36 hours before were losing their collective minds, have now crowned themselves as the authority on all things hurricane related. Pay these people no mind. It is my opinion that they ridicule the prepared residents to justify their lack of foresight. By mocking the prepared, they falsely obtain redemption from the embarrassment, shame and fear they recently suffered due to lack of preparation. Hurricane fever is real. Don’t fall victim to this. Develop a strong mindset and you will weather the storm.
Florida presents unique challenges with regards to major hurricanes. Namely: It’s landmass and shape, the number of evacuations routes, and a population largely of retirees and non-natives with little to no experience of major hurricanes. If you have never experienced a major hurricane in Florida, then please keep these words in mind during the next approaching storm: Mindset is absolutely critical to your survival and safety. Be prepared, not scared.