I’m a Florida native, born at Macdill Air Force Base when my dad was stationed there, raised in the Sunshine State since his military stint ended right about the time disco was taking its last gasps. So it’s fair to say I’ve seen my share of hurricanes over the years. As a kid, I used to track them with the kind of fervor most other kids reserved for Thundercats and He-Man, using the handy map provided by my local newspaper at the beginning of the season, scribbling the latest positions I heard on my little weather radio and trying to guess where the storms would go.
Hurricane Elena was the first one I can remember that threatened the Tampa Bay Area where I lived. This was back in 1985, and the storm played coy for a few days, hovering a hundred miles offshore and pelting us with rain and the occasional wind gust before doing a loop-de-loop and heading off to pound Biloxi instead. From this, I learned two things: hurricanes could be unpredictable, and I really, really wanted to experience one first-hand. Of course, I kept my disappointment with Elena’s tease to myself, as anyone else in their right mind woudn’t have wanted a Category 3 monster anywhere near them. But I was impulsive, and foolish, and way too curious–plus I wasn’t the one on the hook for homeowner’s insurance premiums. Such is the folly of youth.
My tune changed markedly by the time 2004 rolled around. By then I was a married man with two kids, including a son who had been born only a few months prior to August of that year. It was a Friday the 13th, as luck would have it, and my local newspaper had put out an issue that morning with one of those huge headlines expressly designed to fill you with dread: TARGET TAMPA BAY. The hurricane, named Charley this time, had crossed over the western tip of Cuba the night before, and all the models had its 147 mile-per-hour winds roaring up to my doorstep later that afternoon. I remember distinctly taking a walk with my wife that morning, pushing the stroller in front of us, wondering how much of our neighborhood would still be left when the sun came up the next morning. I also remember being scared in a way that I had never felt before. It’s one thing to fear for your own life. Fearing for your children is quite another.
But then Friday the 13th turned out to be a lucky day after all–at least for us. Charley wobbled to the east on its way up the coast and hit Punta Gorda instead. The storm was compact enough that we barely even got a breeze at home, but moved so quickly that by the time it crossed Orlando that night it still packed 100 mile-per-hour winds. Those of us on the Suncoast were largely spared, while the House of Mouse took one square in the kisser. One of the many ironies of life in Florida, I guess.
Which brings us to today. Another season, another hurricane, this one barely two weeks after a heavyweight contender with the unlikely name of Harvey dumped enough rain on Texas to make the record books. Her name is Irma, and she has a lot of Floridians terrified. Right now, the tracks have her making landfall somewhere between Miami and Key Largo, and making a turn to the north that will cut straight up the middle of the state. If this holds true, Tampa Bay will not get the worst of it–I anticipate a good amount of rain, with winds gusting anywhere from 40-70 miles-per-hour–but almost everyone around here is still acting like it’s the end of days. Stores have been cleaned out. The bottled water went first, along with the portable generators, and now gasoline is becoming increasingly harder to find. People are probably just overreacting because of what they saw happen in Houston, I suppose–but it’s probably not a good time to tell them that this is a different storm, with a different personality, that flooding from rain will be a lot less of a problem than the wind and the surge. That can wait until later. Right now, people are more concerned with being prepared, and if that gives them a feeling of some control it’s all for the good.
Otherwise all we can do is wait, and see, and pray.