When my brother enticed my mother to move down to Florida, he told her that Cape Canaveral was chosen as the NASA launch site because this section of Florida was hit by the fewest hurricanes. That was his selling point. He worked at NASA, and thought it a nifty factoid.
Mom moved down, and for many years the worst we had to cope with was the occasional tropical storm, and we had already weathered many of them (pardon the pun) when we lived in the Virgin Islands.
In 1999, Hurricane Floyd scared us. It was heading straight for us, prompting the government to issue evacuation orders for the coastal areas, and even though we’re 20 minutes from the coast, we thought it best to leave. So did everyone else. We sat in traffic for hours and hours, trying to get to my brother’s house in Kissimmee. The 1.5 hour trip took nearly 5, and then Floyd veered north, so it was a lot of hullabaloo for nothing.
Then in 2004, Hurricane Charley threatened. We watched as it made landfall on the other side of the state, at Cayo Costa, with winds of 150 mph, then hours later hit the mainland portion of the state at Punta Gorda. The winds destroyed thousands of homes (mostly of low-income people), knocked down tens of thousands of trees, and left more than 2 million Floridians without power. Charley resulted in 8 direct fatalities, 20 indirect casualties, and 792 reported injuries. Throughout the state, damage was estimated at $13.5 billion, at the time the second costliest hurricane in United States history. (It has since dropped to fourth.)
It also made a direct hit on my brother and sister-in-law in Kissimmee, in the middle of the state.
Three weeks later, Hurricane Frances headed straight for us, a category 4 storm. This one, we were told, would hit us hard, and we make plans to evacuate to Tampa. The whole family goes, three generations of us with our dogs and Mom’s oxygen machine. We stay in a cheap motel and have a little party. It weakens to a category 2, hits Kissimmee again, and then hits us in Tampa, but by then it’s just a tropical storm. The hurricane damages 15,000 homes and 2,400 businesses in Palm Beach County (well south of where we live), with damage across the state totaling $8.32 billion. The damage total includes $100 million in damage to space and military facilities in Cape Canaveral.
Everyone around us sustained serious damage. Our house was untouched. The blue tarps seemed to cover 60% of the roofs in the area. The next door neighbor’s roof was destroyed. Our neighbors across the street had so much water damage that it weakened an internal wall and made the house uninhabitable for nearly a year. We were without power for just a few days, but the neighbors were out for at least two weeks.
Three weeks after that, Hurricane Jeanne hit the southern portion of the state very near where Frances struck, producing hurricane-force winds across an area previously affected by one or two other hurricanes, causing additional severe damage across the region. We flee once again, but this time it’s just Mom-the-worrywort, the dog, and me. And once again the storm comes all the way over to Tampa.
We’re starting to think that Tampa is not the ideal evacuation site.
The first motel we stay in loses power, and we need electricity so Mom’s oxygen machine will work. I search frantically for a new one, but everything within 40 miles is booked. I finally find a crap hole of a motel that has electricity but no air conditioning, and no windows that would open. We slept with the door open, and dear Goldie stood guard over us, growling at the slightest vibration on the balcony. Thank goodness we only had to spend one night before heading back to the east coast. We should have stayed put: our little area wasn’t hit hard at all. My poor brother in Kissimmee got slammed. Again.
The next year it was Katrina. For a moment we said, “Thank God it wasn’t us this time,” but that joy was short-lived as we watched the levees crumble in real time and saw an entire city washed away. I actually think this storm did more to tarnish the president’s reputation than all the personal and political scandals or the war in Iraq. Here we had people suffering, our people, the poorest segment of an overwhelmingly African American population, and he did nothing. I haven’t yet had the emotional strength to watch Spike Lee’s magnum opus, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, a four-hour documentary about the tragedy. I think I may get up the courage to watch it soon.
We are now at Katrina’s second anniversary. The storm hit on August 29th and the levees were breached. By midnight there was significant loss of life. By the 30th the looting had started, and nearly 20,000 people had sought refuge in the Superdome, with flood waters continuing to rise. As many as 100 people died in the Superdome, most from heat exhaustion. It wasn’t until the 31st that a general public health emergency was declared for the entire Gulf Coast, and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco ordered a mandatory evacuation of all those remaining in New Orleans. Relief organizations scrambled to locate suitable areas for relocating evacuees on a large scale. We all know what a miserable failure that was.
I’ve found myself hearing a song in my head this week, the beautiful “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” performed by Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday. Here are two versions for you: a snippet from the 1947 movie New Orleans, with Holiday doing the singing and Armstrong on the trumpet; and a duet with both of them singing, with a haunting montage of scenes from New Orleans in the midst of the hurricane’s devastation. Both are worth watching.