A mother sitting on top of a roof in the black night . . . the house floating away . . . holding a baby. The baby was torn out of her arms, slid down a roof, disappeared into the black water. That's 92-year-old Herb Donald of Dunedin, who lived through the devastating 1928 Okeechobee hurricane, recalling stories told to his mother as she tended to storm survivors in West Palm Beach. "People can't understand the force of the wind at 120, 150 miles an hour," Donald says in a video, Project Storm Story, that Pinellas County is creating. The hope is that hearing survivors tell their own stories will bring home the harsh realities of hurricanes to those who haven't experienced them. Donald goes on: This man was floating in the water, holding on to debris. . . . He made a final lunge to get a better hold and when he did his hand went over a nail in the debris. It went through his hand. He passed out. When he came to, that's how he survived, by being held there in the debris by the nail through his hand.
After two seasons with barely a stiff breeze — and the horrors of 2004 and 2005 fading in memory — emergency-preparedness officials face the challenge of impressing upon residents the importance of taking hurricanes seriously and being prepared without sounding like Chicken Little.
Stories like those in Project Storm Story help get the point across. But listen to Larry Gispert, Hillsborough's emergency management director, get to the heart of the matter:
"Here's the facts straight up: Hurricanes kill people. End of statement. Want to be dead? End of statement."
Well, that's attention-getting.
So is this year's hurricane prediction by Dr. William Gray, hurricane expert at Colorado State University. He predicts 15 named storms, eight of which will be hurricanes, four of them major. The season starts June 1.
Even if the fear factor has the desired effect, the nation's miserable economy may deter some Floridians from stockpiling the peanut butter, canned tuna, snack cakes and bottled water that are the staples of hurricane diets. With gas hovering around $3.65 a gallon, who's got extra money in the grocery budget for nonperishable foods and batteries?
Not to mention for window protection. "It's been dead throughout the state," said Russ Bohen of Home Safety Solutions in Oldsmar. The quiet seasons of 2006 and 2007 cut demand drastically.
Newcomers got into what seemed like a get-rich-quick business in response to demand from Floridians who were panicked by the devastation of Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne in 2004 and by Dennis, Katrina and Wilma in 2005. Now, "they've been dropping like flies," said Tom Johnston, director of research and development for Town & Country Industries in Fort Lauderdale.
T&C is a major manufacturer of window protection and one of the largest aluminum importers/suppliers in the Southeast. Said Johnston: "No hurricanes, no sales."
Things are about to get worse for window protection dealers and for prospective buyers. Aluminum suppliers increased prices by 15 to 25 percent last month and have hinted at another increase this summer.
The reason for that price increase is an interesting tale of how Florida fits into the global economy. Back in February, around the time of Chinese New Year, freezing temperatures and heavy snow hit China, a major supplier of aluminum, and power was cut to its smelters. Molten aluminum solidifies if power is off for as little as four hours, and that's what happened in China. It can take six to eight weeks to restart an aluminum plant — they are very energy-intensive — and bring it back up to the appropriate temperature and start producing metal again. It can take six to eight months to clean out metal that froze in the pots.
To make things worse, power shortages in Mozambique and South Africa have cut aluminum production there too. The bottom line: No power means no production, and higher prices for aluminum shutter retailers half a world away.
Between China and Africa, the result, analysts say, will be a loss of 1.5-million tons of aluminum production this year, or 4 percent of global production.
Dealers do say, however, that they're seeing steady traffic from customers who participate in the My Safe Florida plan, which provides inspections, information about rebates and matching grants to low- and middle-income homeowners.
What you can do
Emergency operations directors say they'll keep repeating the message they've been giving for years:
• Everyone needs to prepare.
• Take responsibility for yourself. Don't expect the friendly face of an emergency worker at the door the morning after the hurricane with a hot meal, cold water and a repair crew.
• Be ready to survive without assistance for a week or more. It can take that long for rescue crews to get organized and for supply chains to be re-established. Your area may not be the worst hit. Another area could take priority over you.
• Hurricane day may not be the worst day of your life. The days — or weeks and months — after a hurricane may put you to the real test, as you struggle to live without electricity (which means: no refrigerator, no range, no air conditioning, no TV) and without running water or indoor plumbing.
• Even in tight budget times, everyone can do something. Start now to pick up a can or jar of nonperishable food every time you shop. Amass the hurricane supplies you already have around the house: flashlights and batteries (test them now), first-aid kit. You don't need to buy everything now, or new. You already have a lot of it.
• Make a plan. Hernando County, for example, is encouraging its residents to "mitigate in '08": make their homes as safe and strong as possible so they can shelter in place rather than at a public shelter. Let those be your shelter of last resort, the place you go only if better alternatives fail.
Pinellas will focus this year on "how-to" information: how to board up windows, reinforce the garage and so on. "We want to eliminate excuses, like, 'I don't know how to do it,' " said Tom Iovino, a spokesman for Pinellas County. "It's not rocket science. We're not asking you to become brain surgeons. It's a very simple process to prepare yourself for hurricane season."
Herb Donald recalls riding out the Category 5 hurricane of 1928 huddled under the kitchen table with his mother, two sisters, the dog and the maid. "You have not only the wind, but the storm surge, and the storm surge is what killed so many people in the Everglades," he said. An estimated 2,500 were killed when the storm surge breached the dike on Lake Okeechobee, flooding hundreds of square miles. Says Donald:
It will happen. It's just a matter of when. You can expect to have a devastating hurricane, a horrible hurricane, any time.
Judy Stark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (727) 893-8446.