Editorial: Remain vigilant on hurricane preparation

Hurricane Irma near the Bahamas in September 2017.
NASA/NOAA Hurricane Irma near the Bahamas in September 2017.
Published September 5 2018
Updated September 7 2018

Everybody knows what they were doing a year ago: waiting in line for water, batteries and plywood, making those final emergency preparations and getting ready to hunker down as Hurricane Irma bore down on Florida. Residents of Tampa Bay feared that the big one was finally about to land a direct hit. Early on Sept. 10, Irma lashed the lower Keys as a Category 4 storm, before socking the state twice, cutting power to much of Florida but mercifully skirting Tampa Bay with its worst winds. With the memory of Irma still fresh in everyone’s mind, it’s the right moment to point out that September and October mark the time when everyone in Tampa Bay needs to pay close attention.

September is historically the most active month of the season. And the worst storm to hit Tampa Bay in modern times, the 1921 hurricane, came even later, roaring ashore on Oct. 25 near Tarpon Springs as a Category 3. So be ready. There’s no need to worry, but there’s every reason to be ready.

This is the time of year that storms can brew up quickly in the Gulf of Mexico. Take Tropical Storm Gordon, which formed very rapidly near the Florida Keys Monday morning and sped into the Gulf before hitting just west of the Alabama-Mississippi border on Tuesday with sustained winds of 70 mph. It would have been easy to be completely unaware of its development at all for those taking it easy on Labor Day. Had Gordon headed our way instead, there would have been no realistic time to prepare, which is why it’s important to have family hurricane plans and supplies ready to go through the entire season.

Right now, Florence, which had developed into the first major hurricane of the season before weakening in the mid-Atlantic, is building again and will likely become a strong hurricane as it churns toward the East Coast next week. With two disturbances in the eastern Atlantic, there could be three named storms out there in a few days.

Think back to what it was like to live without power for a week as so many Tampa Bay residents did in Irma’s aftermath. Think about what you did right in your preparations and what you wish you had done better. And make those plans now so they’re ready. Let’s hope you don’t need them, but be ready if you do.

Remember that even though we missed the eyewall of Irma, we still felt the force of hurricane winds — and it could have been so much worse. What would you have done differently? And what if we had faced a Category 4 storm instead of being brushed by one that barely was classified as a hurricane?

In fact, insured losses in Florida from Irma hit $10.5 billion as of a few weeks ago, which doesn’t even include flood damage. And the total damage — insured and not — is estimated at more than $50 billion.

For a sense of just how much worse things could have been, look at the new death toll coming out of Puerto Rico. Officials there now say that 2,975 people died after Hurricane Maria, a number very near the death toll from the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

June 1 and the start of the hurricane season may seem like a long time ago, and a mostly quiet season can lull Tampa Bay residents into a false sense of serenity. But remember that we’re barely halfway through the season, and we’re just entering the time that tends to be busiest for the kind of hurricanes that might hit us.

There is no need to panic. But there is every need to prepare.