Storm season could be met with 'skittishness'

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A U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopter surveys the damage wrought by Hurricane Michael over Mexico Beach, Florida. October 11, 2018. Photo by James E. Wyatt.

A faded banner, draped across the second-story balcony of a weather-battered shell of a home, sends a message: “Mexico Beach will rise again.”

Nearby, several residents, rather than having real-estate signs planted in the sandy remains of their properties, defiantly declare the sites are not for sale, more than seven months after Hurricane Michael --- packing 160 mph sustained winds --- laid waste to the beach town and surrounding region.

“We love our neighbors and our community,” says a sign outside an empty, stilted beachfront residential property.

With the new hurricane season approaching, Mexico Beach resident David Kiser simply shrugged when asked about the approach of another storm season.

“I always pay attention to hurricane season,” said Kiser, a longtime Panhandle resident who has lived in Mexico Beach for 16 years. “I’m not going anywhere, but I’m not riding them out.”

Saturday marks the start of the six-month 2019 Atlantic hurricane season.

Mark Wool, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Tallahassee, said the state’s recent hurricane experiences have led to talk about tempering the tone of storm updates.

“The entire population of Florida has a heightened sensitivity to perceived threats,” Wool said. “In fact, this year there may be a little bit of skittishness.”

While nothing has come of the talk, Wool noted that the rash of destructive hurricanes during the past three years should translate into more people taking to the roads in search of shelter.

“No one is going to attempt to go through Michael a second time,” he said.

“We’re involving social scientists more and more these days, to try and figure out what compels somebody to evacuate versus deciding to stay,” he added. “Prior experience is the chief motivator. People who think they have experienced something bad in the past will go ahead and evacuate. Those who don’t have that experience may not.”

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After going more than a decade without a direct hit, Florida has taken severe blows during the past three years, with Hurricane Matthew skirting the East Coast and Hurricane Hermine knocking out power in the Tallahassee area in 2016, Irma barreling through much of the state in 2017 and Michael devastating part of the Panhandle last year.

For this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has projected a near-normal season, which means nine to 15 named storms, four to eight hurricanes and two to four major storms with winds over 111 mph.

“It only takes one storm,” Wool said. “Ask the folks out in the Panhandle if it was a busy season, and they’ll definitely tell you yes.”

Kiser was one of the lucky ones. His home survived and his shop, Caribbean Coffee, was able to reopen a little more than a month after Michael.

The business is among six cottages lining scenic U.S. 98, which hugs the Gulf of Mexico, and Kiser recalled initially having to use a side window to get inside because of the debris.

The business is one of the few that have reopened.

“We used to have a rule that if it was (Category) 3 and above we left. But we got to where we just take off a couple of days,” said Kiser, who was in Ocala with family members when Michael made landfall. “We had been watching that. Where it swarmed in the Gulf, I was really worried, because the water was so hot, and it started gaining strength fast.”

For the fifth consecutive year, the Atlantic has started acting up before the calendar turned to the page marking the start of the hurricane season.

Andrea was a short-lived tropical system that organized hundreds of miles southwest of Bermuda on May 20. Next on the list are Barry, Chantal, Dorian, Erin, Fernand, Gabrielle and Humberto.

With the increased hurricane impacts on Florida, lawmakers included $1.52 million in the upcoming year’s budget to cover 20 new hires in the state Division of Emergency Management, with at least seven directed to providing technical assistance to local governments.

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Another lesson the state must address is devising a program to help small communities cover disaster costs. Just the cleanup from Hurricane Michael depleted the annual budgets of several Panhandle local governments, state Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz said.

“We cannot expect a city with a $3.5 million budget to afford a $40 million cleanup,” Moskowitz said during the Governor’s Hurricane Conference this month in West Palm Beach.

Moskowitz also got $1 million from legislators to plan a redesign of the Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee, where he would like to see more private industries offering input along with government agencies as storms approach.

“Even as I run out of room in the EOC, and we have run out of room in the EOC, I am asking more stakeholders to come to Tallahassee and be in the EOC,” said Moskowitz, who was director of government relations for the disaster-recovery firm AshBritt Environmental and a state House member before being tapped as emergency-management chief by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

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Among other things, Moskowitz would like input before and after storms from cell-phone service providers.

“Telecommunications, cell phone service, has become a life, health and safety issue,” Moskowitz said. “As we learned from Hurricane Michael, not having that restored immediately provides all sorts of complications.”