‘It’s the price we pay to live in Florida.’ The year when 4 hurricanes tormented us

This week, as we relax knowing that the National Hurricane Center says there is no organized tropical systems in the Atlantic (there’s a little disturbance off the African coast but Saharan dust is expected to keep it from forming) a 15th anniversary gives Floridians a chance to reflect.

In 2004, four hurricanes made landfall in Florida — Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne — the most recorded for the state in a single year.

That 2004 Atlantic hurricane season was a hyperactive beast, killing more than 3,200 people across the world and causing more than $61 billion.

Of the 16 named storms — from Alex to Otto — nine brushed or struck the United States, according to the National Hurricane Center, including, of course, Florida’s fearsome four.

From the Miami Herald archives, here is some of what was reported that mean season:

Michelle Smith, 40, wiped her eyes while standing in front of her father Richard Smith’s destroyed mobile home at Port Charlotte Village mobile home park in this Aug. 14, 2004, file phot. Her father stayed with her during Hurricane Charley in her home which had one bedroom blown out. J. Albert Diaz Miami Herald File

Hurricane Charley

Nearly a million Floridians told ‘Leave!’

Published Aug. 13, 2004

Authorities urged 800,000 Floridians to flee their homes Thursday, a mammoth evacuation that came as Hurricane Charley intensified and began mushrooming into a monster storm that gravely imperiled Florida’s Gulf Coast.

The double-barreled danger: winds stronger than 115 mph and a wall of seawater up to 13 feet high, especially in the Tampa Bay area.

“This really is our nightmare scenario,” state meteorologist Ben Nelson told Gov. Jeb Bush and other officials who met late Thursday in the state’s Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee.

The Florida National Guard began moving soldiers to Tampa late Thursday. About the same time, with Charley just over the horizon, Key West officials issued a last-minute plea: Evacuate the first floor of buildings in areas closest to the sea.

The storm’s projected path once it crosses Cuba shifted slightly westward, diminishing the threat to Miami-Dade and Broward counties but enhancing the hazards confronting Tampa, St. Petersburg and other flood-prone regions along Florida’s Gulf Coast.

Forecasters said Charley’s outlying squalls could touch South Florida today, with 35 mph winds and two to five inches of rain, though some areas could receive more. They also warned that tornadoes were possible. A flood watch covered the region until at least 8 p.m.

At the northern end of the state, Tropical Storm Bonnie brought wind and rain to the Panhandle, but Charley by far was the most dangerous of the two storms that endangered the state.

Throughout the Keys and Gulf Coast — in fact, throughout much of the state — an atmosphere of crisis and foreboding prevailed.

After carving through Cuba - raging nearly over Havana - and passing close to Key West, Charley’s central core could reach Florida’s mainland as a major Category Three storm, with winds of 115 mph. Then, forecasters said, strong wind could cut a path through Central and Northeast Florida.

Storm surge danger

An equal, if not greater, danger could come from storm surge, the wall of water that accompanies the center of the storm. Some experts estimated that surge at 10 to 13 feet high.

If that happens, a vast swath of the coast could find itself under water.

“We could have houses with up to 10 to 12 feet of water,” said Tom Iovino of the Pinellas County Emergency Management Office, responsible for St. Petersburg and Clearwater.

Said Ed Rappaport, deputy director of the National Hurricane Center in West Miami-Dade County: “This is a threat to life and property in the coastal zone.”

Officials in Pinellas told as many as 380,000 residents of coastal and other low-lying areas to evacuate. In Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, 300,000 people were urged to leave. In Manatee County, which includes Bradenton, the orders went to 66,000 people.

About 20,000 nonresidents of the Florida Keys were subject to evacuation orders or requests, as were tens of thousands of residents of Naples, Fort Myers, Sarasota and surrounding areas.

No one knew where all of those people would — or could — go. Pinellas County shelters, for instance, have room for 70,000 evacuees, which would leave 310,000 to fend for themselves.

As darkness arrived, state officials and local emergency managers wrestled with the manifold problems associated with alerting a sprawling population of a deadly danger and motivating so many people to take action.

Hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast residents have never experienced a hurricane, and emergency managers have been worried that a perilous storm and an inexperienced or apathetic population could combine to produce a major disaster.

“It’s going to be a long night for a lot of Florida residents,” said Craig Fugate, director of the state’s Division of Emergency Management. “It’s not going to be fun. We expect a lot of traffic jams.”

By late Thursday, they were materializing. Cars and trucks jammed many Pinellas County roads.

The evacuations ordered Thursday represented the largest in the state since September 1999, when Hurricane Floyd chased more than two million Floridians out of their homes. That flood of people caused huge traffic jams that could have trapped thousands in the open if Floyd hadn’t veered away.

In the Florida Keys, the evacuation of nonresidents ran into a snag when an accident blocked traffic for two hours early Thursday on U.S. 1 along the crucial 18-mile stretch that connects the Keys to the mainland.

Police reported other fender benders as visitors scrambled to exit the island chain, but traffic flowed smoothly later in the day.

Forecasters said the storm’s worst effects could arrive in the Keys at high tide early today, producing water levels four feet above normal - plus battering waves. They told residents on the ocean side of the islands not to remain in their houses.

Calm in Marathon

In Marathon, there was a calm Thursday just ahead of the storm. Street activity ebbed. Windows were boarded up. Trucks and SUVs hauled away the few remaining boats.

“It’s like Death Valley,” said Mike Callahan, owner of Island Golf Cart Supply.

On Duval Street in Key West, gone were the fanny-pack-wearing tourists, replaced by small groups of workmen racing to attach plywood to storefronts.

As the rain was scheduled to arrive, so was the dryness: Key West Mayor Jimmy Weekley ordered businesses to stop selling alcohol at 10 p.m., a probably futile attempt to cut back on the number and magnitude of hurricane parties.

“They’re everywhere,” Cudjoe Key resident Joe Lytton said of the parties.

On the Gulf Coast, some people — as usual — vowed to defy evacuation orders, but many seemed to get the message.

Gas and cash

They hammered plywood to windows and they flocked to pack-it-yourself sandbag centers and they waited in line for gasoline and cash, two absolute necessities for evacuees.

In St. Petersburg, Jodi Connover threw clothes into suitcases for her two children as their four cats watched nervously. “No matter where the storm hits,” she said, “we are going to have a mess.”

Said Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio: “This is not a situation you can just sort of ride out. It’s a bad situation, no doubt about it.”

As far south as Sanibel Island, officials predicted a storm surge of eight to 10 feet, even if Charley’s center makes landfall up the coast.

“I went through Andrew,” said Bob McDonald. “Most of the people here, they’ll wait until the last minute, but they’ll leave.”

At the Ritz-Carlton in Naples, three buses pulled away carrying 180 software executives attending a conference. Their new destination: the chain’s resort in Key Biscayne.

The shallow waters around Tampa Bay and the low-lying coastline render the region particularly vulnerable to storm surge, scientists said.

On its projected path, Charley would propel its dramatic storm surge ashore just north of the mouth of Tampa Bay - the scenario that Robert Weisberg, a University of South Florida scientist who has studied the problem, believes could do the most damage.

In a Category Two storm, two-thirds of south Tampa, which sticks out in the bay like a thumb, could be underwater. A Category Four storm could cover the entire peninsula.

Said Billy Wagner Jr., Monroe County’s senior director of emergency management: “They’re going to get clobbered.”

Hurricane Charley cuts a channel and splits an island

Published Aug. 16, 2004

Hurricane Charley’s winds and waves not only damaged nearly everything on the posh resort island of North Captiva, they also split it in two — creating the first new isle off Florida’s Gulf Coast since a giant storm did the same more than 80 years ago.

“It’s now in two pieces,” said Lee County Office of Emergency Management spokesman Pat O’Rourke. “The hurricane went through and separated it by several hundred yards.”

The Great Hurricane of 1921 split off the north end of Captiva Island, creating North Captiva. Hurricane Charley split the remaining part of the island into two.

Originally, the string of islands arcing south and west of Pine Island and Fort Myers consisted of Sanibel to the south, connected by a small bridge over Blind Pass to Captiva Island to the north.

Redfish Pass

The no-name hurricane of October 1921 gouged out of the Gulf what is now known as Redfish Pass, which separates Captiva and North Captiva.

Thanks to Charley, O’Rourke said, dozens of private homes that were once part of North Captiva now sit on their own island.

Captiva’s northernmost structure remains the South Seas Plantation Resort. But now, popular establishments like Safety Harbour, The Mango Cafe and Barnacle Phil’s are on the new island.

Rob Jess of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the manager of Ding Darling Wildlife refuge on Sanibel Island.

He flew over North Captiva by helicopter.

“It didn’t look man-made,” Jess said of the North Captiva strait. “It shows you how powerful water is, water and wind. It’s amazing.”

No buildings affected

The split occurred along a spit of land inside a state refuge, roughly two-thirds down the island, and apparently didn’t affect any buildings, O’Rourke said.

To the south, he said, all of Captiva was “battered.” Search operations continued on all the islands. Residents were banned from returning Sunday.

The only way to get to Captiva — other than by boat — is over the bridge from Sanibel, which had yet to be declared safe for public passage by Lee County officials.

Only emergency vehicles were being allowed onto Sanibel, littered with downed power lines and trees.

National Guard troops patrolled to prevent looting and stop any attempt by anxious residents to reach their homes by boat.

“They’re moving teams out there but we have not received reports back yet,” O’Rourke said.

“I have not heard of any casualties or deaths out there.”

Ilona Jaffe grew tearful when she talked about life on North Captiva, before Charley.

She and her husband, Dennis, owned a home there for 20 years before selling last year.

Pilots both, they would fly to a North Captiva airstrip every weekend - a hop to paradise, said Jaffe, who described a serene island unmarred by resorts or T-shirt factories.

North Captiva was ‘close-knit’

North Captiva “was a very close-knit group of individuals, not a country-club island. It’s people who like their privacy, nature lovers,” she said.

The couple plan to fly over as soon as restrictions are lifted.

They’ve heard damage reports from their friend, Hart Kelley, one of six residents who stayed on North Captiva through the storm.

“He says it’s like a Third World country,” Jaffe said.

“Homes have no roofs, some have been washed away. No windows.”

The Jaffes spoke to Kelley 30 minutes after Charley passed.

The news wasn’t good: Hurricane shutters were ripped off homes, roofs and windows were blown out.

Kelley estimated at least 30 percent of the island’s more than 250 homes were destroyed.

“They stayed in a bathroom and had to hold the door shut or else they’d have been sucked out,” Dennis Jaffe said.

The storm surge, predicted to reach 15 feet, was smaller than expected, he said.

But Kelley reported most docks were demolished down to their pilings.

It’s a very precarious situation over there,” Dennis Jaffe said.

Scott St. John, 43, rode out the storm inside a multimillion-dollar mansion on the south end of Captiva - and was refusing to leave.

He and his wife, Paula, are caretakers for the mansion, which sustained water damage and broken windows. Paula was on the mainland during Charley.

No water, no ice

St. John complained Sunday that the National Guard and U.S. Marshals Service were ignoring his requests for water in hopes of convincing him to leave with them.

‘All I ask for is a bag of ice. I have enough food for one day,” St. John told The Herald by cellular telephone. “Now it’s personal. I’ll go on a hunger strike if I have to.”

“They said if he’s dumb enough to stay he can suffer,” Paula said. “He doesn’t feel he should be forced off the island.”

The National Guard and the Marshals Service couldn’t immediately be reached for comment on St. John’s vigil.

Hurricane Frances

Heavy traffic flows north on Interstate 95 in Daytona Beach, Florida., as residents fleed the state ahead of approaching Hurricane Frances on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2004. BRIAN CLEARY AP

Frances prep tests South Floridians’ patience

Published Sept. 3, 2004.

By nightfall Thursday, scores of South Florida gas stations had run out of gas. Sheets of plywood were a scarce commodity.

Many stores were out of C and D batteries and water jugs. Cash machines had run dry.

Hurricanes always set off a run on gas, water and supplies. But Hurricane Frances poses a unique set of problems. It comes three weeks after Hurricane Charley, a storm that lowered inventories and raised fears across the state. And given the size of this storm, customers up and down Florida were looking for the same things.

The shortages left even hurricane-savvy residents startled.

“I feel like a scavenger, picking things off the floor and searching for anything,” said Claudio Nino, 35, who spent the day at a Wal-Mart in West Dade. “There aren’t even any potato chips left here.”

Gas seemed the scarcest of all. Florida’s two main gasoline ports were closed to tanker ships for safety reasons. Along U.S. 1 and U.S. 441 and other arteries in wide swaths of Miami-Dade and Broward, service stations wrapped yellow tape around dry pumps and shut down until further notice.

It could be Sunday or later before supplies are replenished, a prospect that might make Frances’ aftermath that much more frustrating.

One of the few stations still open late Thursday was the Shell on Northwest 12th Street and 87th Avenue. Scores of cars waited for at least 45 minutes, backing up traffic for 20 blocks.

“I’m so nervous, because they might run out of gas before I get there,” said Nery Ng, 22, of Doral.

Supplies trucked in

Supermarkets, pharmacies and hardware superstores trucked in bottled water and plywood from upstate and out of state to their South Florida outlets. But supplies could not arrive quickly enough. Many never reached the stripped-bare shelves.

The Hallandale Beach Wal-Mart received a shipment of 28 pallets of water about 4 a.m. Thursday. It was gone in 20 minutes.

Publix workers didn’t even bother to put new deliveries of water on the shelves. They dumped the pallets at the front of the store. Paying customers helped themselves.

Said spokeswoman Maria Rodamis: “It’s going as quickly as we can open the case.”

At one Hialeah Publix on Thursday afternoon, checkout lines stretched deep into the aisles. Tempers flared.

“I’m grabbing whatever I can get,” said Revelda Harvin of Liberty City, a school security guard, who managed to snare one of the last cases of bottled water.

Across the street, two dozen people stood in line to use a Bank of America ATM; money, too, seemed in short supply. A security guard directed traffic in the clogged lot.

Bridgette Gaitor, a Miami-Dade schools employee, was there to withdraw $400 for post-storm emergencies. After that, it was on to Super Wal-Mart and Best Buy to hunt for a battery-operated television. Every Radio Shack in town was sold out.

“It’s the price we pay,” she said, “to live in Florida.”

At the Seminole Smoke Shop at Davie Blvd. and U.S. 441 in Davie, the line for discount cigarettes snaked around the parking lot, 20 cars deep.

At Family’s Bakery on Northwest Seventh Avenue in Miami, Joshua Joseph waited an hour for three loaves of Haitian bread.

‘You have to wait’

“Everywhere, you have to wait in line. Wherever you go right now. It’s life,” he said.

At a Blockbuster in North Miami, John Rolon waited 20 minutes to rent a few comedies.

“You would think, at a moment like this, we’d get Passion of the Christ,” Rolon said. “But we’re thinking funny. We have a child. Keep it light.”

All day, nervous drivers swerved on the roads and honked at the gas lines and cursed at the checkout lanes.

And, all day, there were poignant moments of human kindness.

Gloria Carter went to 84 Lumber in Davie for lumber to board up her aunt’s house in Lauderhill. She knew she couldn’t fit the boards in her Toyota Camry and hoped she would find a generous soul with some trunk space.

That would be James Williams, who was there picking up lumber for his home in unincorporated central Broward.

Good deeds

“This is a time where everybody comes together and helps one another,” Williams said. “I figure if I do a good deed for her, someone will do a good deed for me.”

The approaching storm put thousands of South Floridians in a sociable mood. Homeowners with shutters proffered Friday-night dinner invitations to neighbors without. Shoppers made friends in line. Restaurants did a bustling trade.

“This could be my last good meal for days,” said Jeremy Martinez, 11, who begged his parents to take him to Chili’s in Doral ahead of Frances.

The spiraling needs of South Florida consumers put particular pressure on grocery chains and home-improvement superstores; parking lots outside nearly every Publix, Winn-Dixie, Home Depot and Lowe’s in the region were filled to capacity late into the night.

Both supermarket chains had been running their filtered-water plants 24/7 since Charley. The chains were trucking in canned food, batteries and other hurricane emergency items from stores well outside the hurricane strike zone.

At a Home Depot in Davie, in a typical scene, 100 customers waited for four hours Thursday morning for a delivery of plywood.

“This is the biggest resupply mission we have gone through in 25 years,” spokesman Don Harrison said. “Fifteen-hundred trucks have gone in.”

The company sent 40,000 generators to Florida’s West Coast after Charley, leaving little to send to the East Coast before Frances.

The Atlanta-based retailer is already planning to stage hundreds of filled trucks north of the hurricane zone, ready to roll in as soon as the hurricane has passed.

“We’re pulling products off shelves at almost every store in the country, even Seattle and California,” Harrison said.

The company also plans to send at least 800 sales associates to Florida after the hurricane to relieve local staff.

An increasing number of ATMs were out of cash as the storm neared. Both Bank of America and Wachovia said they were restocking as soon as the machines are depleted, but people were drawing out cash at nearly a breathtaking pace; neither institution anticipated that they would run out of money altogether.

The shortages only complicated preparations for people still laboring to seal up their homes and clear their yards.

A time for shutters

Monica Pelella, 53, had just begun to put up aluminum shutters about 1 p.m. on her Coral Gables home, dressed in pants and a hat for protection from the sun. A Miami native, Pelella was familiar with hurricanes. She was less familiar with shutters.

“It’s harder than I thought it would be,” she said. “You really need to take a dry run first.”

Versailles Restaurant, the nerve center of Little Havana, covered all of its windows with aluminum shutters for the first time. During Andrew, the owners used plywood.

“I’m using the hurricane as an excuse to do a dry-run, like a fire drill,” said Versailles owner Felipe Valls Jr. He was not expecting the shutters to be tested by Frances.

Valls said the restaurant, open 365 days a year, would close about 3 or 4 p.m. today.

Amid all the activity, some South Floridians did virtually nothing to prepare for the storm. In swaths of West Miami-Dade, row after row of condo balconies still had patio furniture and plants sitting outside.

“I always do that last,” said Nina Pupo, 55, of the Fox Chase complex at 8600 NW Eighth St.

“I don’t like putting everything inside unless I know this is going to happen for sure.”

And in innumerable taverns and boutiques and salons, life went on.

“I already did everything that had to be done,” said Anna Torro, 32, in for a taupe polish at Nails Salon in Davie. “Now, I relax and wait to see what happens.”

Hurricane Frances batters sailboat and a houseboat on a pier in Stuart (about noon on Sept. 5, 2004.) J. Albert Diaz Miami Herald File

Frances batters the Treasure Coast

Published Sept. 5, 2004

Roofs peeled off, oak trees gave up the fight against pummeling winds, and even emergency vehicles were forced off deserted, rain-swept streets as Hurricane Frances began assaulting Florida’s East Coast in earnest Saturday night.

“I have seen the roofs coming off buildings,” said Doug Anderson, administrator of St. Lucie County. “I have seen siding come off buildings.”

In Fort Pierce, where a Kmart lost part of its roof and some mobile homes were reported destroyed, and in Stuart, which suffered damage to at least a dozen businesses along U.S. 1, the toll rose as the winds increased. Widespread power outages darkened the coastline from Brevard County south to Miami-Dade. Trees toppled, rain pelted in sideways sheets and flooding became a growing worry.

In shelters and boarded-up community buildings, cabin fever was replaced by sudden thankfulness for shutters and thick walls.

“I don’t like all the rattling,” said Marilyn Blauman, as another gust of wind shook the metal shutters on the clubhouse at Fairlane Mobile Home Park in Vero Beach. “It makes me think it’s coming.”

Frances was coming, finally - its leading edge spreading misery and destruction from Brevard to Palm Beach counties and beyond, its satellite picture of angry reds and oranges nearly swallowing the entire state.

And worsening weather lay ahead, with hurricane-force winds still to come for many, said Nathan McCollum, emergency management coordinator for Indian River County.

“We’re starting to have screen porches go,” he said. “It will be more frightening later.”

Ready for the storm

Still, residents used Frances’ slow approach to prepare, and that showed. Stores and houses were buttoned down, and streets were empty. In Vero Beach, a businessman protected the front of his offices with large dump trucks full of sand. Farther down the street, a sign on plywood across a garage door read: “Stand Tall and Proud - Kiss My Butt, Frances.”

Gerod Johnson, 42, a medical equipment salesman, moved to Stuart from New York and had never seen anything like a hurricane. “I’ve been here four months, and this is my introduction to Florida,” he said. “Mass destruction.”

Measuring the full extent of the damage was nearly impossible late Saturday: In Martin County, as in other places, police cars were pulled from the road during the roughest part of the storm for the safety of the officers. Emergency operations officials were hunkered down, as well.

But early reports offered preliminary information: On U.S. 1 in Stuart, winds peeled off sheet-metal roofs and tore away awnings, sending them spinning across the highway. Part of the blue metal roof on a Howard Johnson was missing.

Fort Pierce lost mobile homes in Golf Village at Spanish Lakes, and roofs of mobile homes in a park on the causeway of South Hutchinson Island were gone by Saturday night.

“East of U.S. 1 in Port St. Lucie had been hit real hard,” said Fort Pierce police spokeswoman Audria Moore.

One person in a shelter was reported dead. A 94-year-old woman who had been fighting liver cancer died at a special-needs shelter in Brevard County Saturday afternoon, according to Joan Heller, a spokeswoman for the emergency operations center.

Also in Brevard, wind gusts demolished a trailer in the Snug Harbor mobile home park and wind damaged the roofs of four others.

Three people in Palm Beach County were hospitalized for poisoning from gas-run generators, and the roof on the Avalon Assisted Living Center near Lake Worth was damaged, forcing the evacuation of 112 patients. Hangars at the county’s airport, the Lake Worth Pier and numerous marine yards were damaged, as well.

As the eye wall brushed Palm Beach late Saturday night, bending trees at extreme angles, county public affairs director Beth Ingold-Love, working at the county’s emergency operations center, choked up. Construction had almost finished on her house near Jupiter Inlet, she explained, and now it was likely a total loss.

In St. Lucie County, damage reports included the Notre Dame Mission on U.S. 1 and several restaurants in the area. Indian River Drive was closed near the Martin-St. Lucie County line for flooding, and the public works department lost part of its roof.

Winds howled, but it was rain that worried others. As relentless sheets fell outside, Shaniecie Suttle, her three children and a nephew watched worriedly from their second-floor hotel room at the Holiday Inn Express in Fort Pierce. Her mother and sister already had moved there from a first-floor room as water topped the grass and crept toward the rooms.

“That’s what we’re scared of here, the flooding,” she said. “We’re worried about the house. It’s real low.”

Power outages, too, grew as the hours passed. Not even shelters were immune. Red Cross officials reported two shelters without power Saturday evening in Brevard.

Toward the west

By evening, the vast storm was reaching inland and threatening the west coast. In Orlando, it knocked out power to thousands and began pounding the region with rain. To the south, Polk County - hammered by Hurricane Charley three weeks ago - had its emergency operations center running, and close to 3,000 people took refuge in county shelters.

“People now are realizing that we can be hit,” said recovery center director Pete McNally. “Before Charley, I think a lot of people thought we were immune.”

In Levy County, on the Gulf Coast, residents were similarly braced, many dropping off their pets at the animal shelter as they headed to people-only shelters.

Down the road at Pick-a-Flick video rental, business was booming as people settled in for a long wait. “We had 16 copies of The Passion of the Christ,” said clerk Elsie Reimel. “They’re all gone.”

Back on the Atlantic coast, the storm raged, but preparations were already under way for its aftermath. At Indian River Memorial Hospital, more than 250 staffers, including extra surgeons, stood by to receive Frances’ victims.

“We’re anticipating broken hips, arms, lacerations,” said Betsy Whisman, spokeswoman for the 335-bed hospital.

Greg Sowell, a spokesperson for Martin County emergency operations said that by this morning the major concern will be flooding, downed power lines and debris blocking the roads.

“The first priority will be to get roads cleared,” Sowell said. The roads are our lifeline to get to people.”

In Palm Beach, the Florida Highway Patrol was patrolling the streets with a 16,000-pound military vehicle, while the sheriff’s office made rounds in a 22,000-pound version. Sheriff Ed Bieluch, reminding residents of the 8 p.m.-5 a.m. curfew, promised to arrest anyone who looked to be up to no good.

Near West Palm Beach, a number of neighbors phoned in reports of suspected looters in two pick-up trucks who were traveling from shuttered home to shuttered home.

Bieluch had a message for them and any others tempted to take advantage of the devastation: “Bring your toothbrush and your teddy bear, because you’re going to be spending some time in jail.”

Hurricane Ivan

High storm cycle is here to stay

Published Sept. 8, 2004

Charley, Frances and Ivan. Three major hurricanes. Two assaults on Florida already and possibly a third by next week. Get used to it. This is the new normal.

Scientists say we are in a period of enhanced hurricane activity that could last for decades, ending a 24-year period of below-average activity. They also say the law of averages has caught up with Florida, with a change in atmospheric steering currents turning the state into a hurricane magnet.

“People are suddenly alert, suddenly paying attention,” said Stanley Goldenberg, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s hurricane research division on Virginia Key. “They can see now that we are in an active era. . . . People should realize that it is very unlikely that Frances is the last storm the U.S. will see this year.”

Which brings us to Hurricane Ivan.

Though subject to considerable error, long-range forecasts are consistently suggesting that Ivan will strike Jamaica on Friday and Cuba on Sunday as a vicious Category 4 hurricane. After that, the outlook is unclear, but the Tuesday night forecast placed much of the state in the five-day cone of probability.

When asked if Florida could endure another hurricane, Gov. Jeb Bush pointed Tuesday to a button he wore on his shirt. It read: “I survived damn near everything.”

“We will survive whatever comes at us,” he said. “We’re an incredibly resilient state. I’m not being defiant; I’m only suggesting we can meet this challenge.”

Three strikes

If Ivan hits the state, it will be the first time since 1964 that three hurricanes smacked Florida in the same year. And September and October tend to be among the most active months of the six-month hurricane season that ends Nov. 30.

“The season is still young,” said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in West Miami-Dade. “It certainly seems from my perspective that we’re in the active period that has been predicted. The only surprise is that Florida hasn’t been hit more often in the last few years.”

A sobering thought: Between 1941 and 1950, seven major hurricanes - with winds higher than 110 mph - attacked Florida. “And that doesn’t include the other [less powerful] hurricanes,” Goldenberg said. That 10-year period fell in the middle of a cycle of heightened activity that began in 1926 and persisted until 1970.

Now, the combination of complacency bred during a long lull between 1971 and 1994, the new hyperactivity since 1995 and the ongoing mega-development of Florida’s coasts frightens emergency managers and scientists.

“The implications are much-increased damage when storms make landfall,” Goldenberg said, “and the potential for major loss of life in the event of an evacuation foul-up during a rapidly intensifying storm.”

He has more than academic interest in this. Goldenberg and his family were nearly killed when Hurricane Andrew crushed their South Dade home in 1992.

Distinct patterns

Research he later conducted with NOAA scientist Chris Landsea, private expert William Gray and others found distinct patterns of low-activity hurricane periods and high-activity periods, each of which endured for decades. These patterns, unrelated to the current concern over global warming, are caused by regular cycles of oceanic and atmospheric phenomena, such as unusually warm water in hurricane breeding grounds.

One period of “hyperactivity” ended in 1970 and was followed by a 24-year lull. The new period of heightened activity began in 1995 and could last for another 10 to 30 years, according to their report, which was reviewed by peers and published in 2001 in the journal Science.

Major storms

In the past few years, and particularly this year, the statistics related to the number, power and duration of storms appear to verify the report’s depressing conclusions, especially when major hurricanes are considered.

This is significant because, though relatively few in number, major hurricanes — Category 3 or higher — cause 80 percent of all damage from tropical weather.

“We’re not talking about stronger hurricanes than in the past,” Goldenberg said. “We’re talking about more of the stronger hurricanes.”

The long-term average, including relatively quiet periods and busy periods, is 2.6 major hurricanes a year.

Between 1971 and 1994, only four years had more than two major hurricanes and none had more than three. Between 1995 and 2003, a much shorter period, seven years had three or more major hurricanes. And we’ve already had four major storms this year - Alex, Charley, Frances and Ivan.

All the other numbers tell the same tale: total storms, total strength, total duration, Caribbean hurricanes, October and November hurricanes are each at least 100 percent — and in some cases 500 or 1,000 percent — higher since the lull.

“That’s a humongous increase,” Goldenberg said. “This is striking. This is not a little signal. It would be like saying the average temperature is 15 degrees warmer than last summer. It’s huge. It’s huge.”

Worse, atmospheric steering currents have changed to our disadvantage.

During the beginning of this active period, a persistent and beneficial bend in the jet stream carried hurricanes away from Florida. Now, that phenomenon has disappeared, replaced by a persistent ridge of high pressure over the Atlantic that is pushing them toward Florida.

What can you do?

Only one thing: Prepare.

“People should realize that, active year or slow year, we can still get hit,” Goldenberg said. “Remember, Andrew hit during a below-average year. The higher activity is just all the more reason to remind people that they can’t let their guard down.”

A Pensacola Beach resident taped windows in advance of Hurricane Ivan in 2004. At the time a Florida PACE program gave homeowners money to better secure their homes, installing storm-impact windows, for example. Taping windows does not protect them from hurricane-force winds. Stephen Morton Getty Images

Grenada battered, Jamaica bracing

Published Sept. 10, 2004

Monster Hurricane Ivan, the worst hurricane to hit the Caribbean in a decade, was on track to smash into Jamaica today after damaging 90 percent of homes in tiny Grenada, sparking some looting and claiming at least 18 lives in the region.

“I could see the houses being lifted up and spinning like paper,” said Brenda Wardally, 54, who survived her Grenada home’s destruction by seeking shelter in a car with her three grandchildren.

Ivan, one of the most powerful hurricanes of recent years, left a trail of death across the Caribbean: at least eight and as many as 12 people killed in Grenada, four in Venezuela, four in the Dominican Republic, one in Barbados and one in Tobago.

Seas churned up by the hurricane even stopped Venezuelan oil exports for 13 hours Thursday - about a half-million barrels - and sank two dozen small seacraft, Venezuelan officials reported.

Ivan now has its sights on Jamaica, an island of 2.7 million whose seaside capital, Kingston, is expected to be walloped by high seas, shrieking winds and driving rains.

But it was in Grenada, a small island nation of fewer than 100,000 people on the southeastern edge of the Caribbean, where Ivan hit its hardest so far, destroying or damaging 90 percent of all homes, as it lashed the island from about 1 p.m. Tuesday to about 5 a.m. Wednesday. About 60 people were reported hospitalized with injuries.

“Almost all of the island is wrecked,” Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency spokesman Terry Ally told Agence France-Presse.

‘A tremendous hit’

“We have really taken a tremendous hit in every respect,” Prime Minister Keith Mitchell, whose own home was flattened by Ivan’s winds, told BBC radio.

Inmates from the main prison high above the capital city, St. George’s, escaped after damage to the facility there Wednesday and Thursday.

“There has been a lot of looting,” Ally said. “The prison has been destroyed and prisoners are on the loose.”

Students fearful

The mostly-American students at an offshore medical school in Grenada were arming themselves with knives, sticks and pepper spray for protection against looters, The Associated Press reported. “We don’t feel safe,” said Sonya Lazarevic, 36, of New York City.

Some 60 sailors from the British warships HMS Richmond and HMS Wave Ruler went ashore in the former British colony Thursday to provide security, clear the airport runway and deliver medical supplies.

Troops from neighboring Caribbean nations were expected to arrive soon to help restore order in a nation where an estimated 32 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

The island’s famed nutmeg and cocoa crops were wiped out, electricity was out throughout the island and hundreds of people were forced to take refuge in shelters, the disaster agency reported. And the tourism industry, the economic lifeline for most of the region, was left in tatters.

Extensive damage

“Virtually every school and church in the capital . . . as well as the police headquarters has been destroyed. The only two buildings in reasonable condition are the Grenada General Hospital and Government Headquarters,” the emergency agency’s report added.

“Roofs were flying in the wind,” Wardally, who had sheltered in a car, told The Herald in a telephone interview. “When the roof in my house started to go, the children started to scream. I struggled to open the door to get outside to put everyone into the car before the trees could close us in.”

Help on the way

Humanitarian assistance for Grenada, just twice the size of Washington, D.C., was stalled by debris blocking the airport runway, but shipments of food and other supplies were expected to begin flowing today.

After the storm passed, Wardally said, “People started to come out with flashlights and went to the fallen houses calling names out, checking to see if [residents] were there or gone.”

“There are so many homeless,” she said. “It’s complete devastation. Everything is laying flat on the ground.”

In Miami, nervous friends and relatives of Grenadians circulated pages-long e-mails with information about whose house was destroyed, which church lost its roof, which parents spent the night huddled in closets.

One e-mail from the island said simply:

“Westmorland School is no longer.”

In Jamaica, banks closed early Thursday and gas stations ran out of fuel Thursday as the government urged the evacuation of 500,000 people living in low-lying coastal communities, flood zones and shantytowns.

Waiting in hope

“We have done the best we can to prepare for any eventuality, but we remain hopeful that we could be spared the worst,” said Prime Minister P.J. Patterson.

Barbara Carby, director general of the Office of Disaster Preparedness, said that while there are concerns about the ability of buildings to withstand 160 mph winds, her greatest concern was the 10-15 foot storm surges and flooding projected for coastal communities.


While some Jamaicans heeded the warnings, stocking up on hurricane supplies, bread and water at local grocery stores, others took a more laid-back attitude, saying that what will be will be.

Gary Stewart, 27, said he was more concerned about getting his locked cellphone to work than he was about putting up shutters or plywood.

Hurricane Jeanne

Hurricane Jeanne is seen on a computer monitor, Thursday, Sept. 23, 2004, at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. The hurricane was expected to make landfall that weekend. J. PAT CARTER AP

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We’ve had enough as fourth storm blasts reeling state

Published Sept. 26, 2004

It didn’t seem possible, and it certainly didn’t seem fair, but Hurricane Jeanne blasted ashore Saturday night along Florida’s Treasure Coast - bulldozing the same area, terrifying the same people humbled just three weeks ago by Hurricane Frances.

Jeanne’s mighty eye wall struck Stuart, Fort Pierce and Vero Beach around 10 p.m. The official point of landfall for the eye itself was on Hutchinson Island — at precisely the same latitude and longitude as Frances’ landfall: 27.2 north, 80.2 west. Official time: 11:50 p.m.

The wide, calm eye brought respite, but it was temporary and deceptive:

The storm raged as a Category 3 hurricane with 120-mph winds capable of inflicting enormous damage, and the second half was right behind that eye.

Wind gusts overturned cars and blew others off the road in Palm Beach County. Martin Memorial Hospital North in Stuart lost some of its roof. A stretch of Vero Beach’s oceanfront street crumbled into the sea.

Once again this morning, a hurricane disaster was in the making in Florida. It was the fourth time this year. Never before has that happened since record-keeping began in 1851.

“Who’d believe it?” Greg Vafiades of Sebastian, near Vero Beach, said Saturday night as Jeanne punched repeatedly at what Frances left of his home. “It’s odds you couldn’t even imagine.”

The eye wall was heralded and followed by hours of whistling, howling wind and cascades of rain and intensifying apprehension.

Some wind measurements or estimates: 110 mph in Vero Beach, 100 mph in Jupiter, 93 mph at Sebastian. In South Florida, winds or gusts of 61 mph were reported in Pompano Beach, 60 mph in Fort Lauderdale, 44 mph in Opa-locka, 35 mph in Miami.

Residents of Pompano Beach, Deerfield Beach and Oakland Park reported downed trees, power lines and damaged roofs.

Along the Treasure Coast - the region between Palm Beach and Cape Canaveral - bombardments of wind propelled by this new curse called Jeanne lifted and catapulted debris from the previous curse called Frances, creating jagged missiles that in turn created a new generation of debris.

No casualties were immediately confirmed, and damage reports were sketchy, but the storm still raged and the tolls in human suffering and physical destruction could be high.

Two initial indications: The U.S. Coast Guard searched fruitlessly for a surfer reported missing off Miami Beach, and police said a vehicle trying to cross a closed bridge in Fort Pierce went airborne and disappeared in the Indian River Lagoon.

Another indication: State officials estimated that Jeanne could damage 1 million buildings - some destroyed, some marred - and displace 223,000 families.

And another: Hundreds of thousands of Florida Power & Light customers were without power, including 94,000 in Palm Beach County, 70,000 in Broward County and 6,500 in Miami-Dade County.

It wasn’t nearly over

Jeanne still raked South and Central Florida with its rear half this morning, even as its front half and eye wall roared diagonally through Florida’s peninsula, tormenting new victims.

Intense weather rolled through Broward and, to a lesser extent, Miami-Dade, compelling millions of people to shutter themselves inside their homes once again or retreat to public shelters or inland refuges.

Forecasters said Broward residents could expect strong wind throughout today, and six to eight inches of rain by Monday. Miami-Dade residents should expect three to six inches of rain.

As the storm approached, South Floridians searched for gasoline, made other last-minute preparations and then rode it out - in some cases, displaying signs of stress.

The Broward Sheriff’s Office was bombarded by people calling 911 for information. Officials pleaded with residents to keep those lines open for true emergencies.

To the north, it was much worse.

A four-to-seven-foot storm surge and much higher waves crashed ashore along the Treasure Coast.

Lightning illuminated the sky with an eerie green strobe-like effect in Martin County, where several roads were flooded and emergency crews were ordered off the streets.

Road signs cartwheeled across highways, and sheet metal hurdled into nearby walls in St. Lucie County.

In Vero Beach, coastal areas took a major hit.

“Water is washing over the dune and washing over Ocean Drive,” Vero Beach Police Chief Jim Gabbard said. “A lot more of the road has gone.”

Siding peeled off a beachfront condo complex heavily damaged by Frances, he said, and post-Frances debris catapulted through the air. “It is pretty hazardous out there,” he said.

And they went through this so recently along the Treasure Coast.

So many deroofed houses had been covered with flimsy plastic sheets, so many plans and dreams shattered, so many lives disrupted, so many people just starting to recover, and now . . . this.

‘My heart goes out to those people’

In this Sept. 28, 2004, file photo, Kathleen Cole, a resident of the Cypress Bay Mobile Home Park in Fort Pierce, was one of many residents flooded out of their trailers since Hurricane Jeanne. She and her family had been living in the recreation center of the park while waiting for waters to recede or get pumped out. The park still had partial flooding from Hurricane Frances when it got hit by Jeanne. Nuri Vallbona Miami Herald File

“My heart goes out to those people,” said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in West Miami-Dade County, whose house was damaged by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. “The recovery phase is difficult . . . then to have another storm on top of it.”

Said Roderick Dreher, 29, of Fort Pierce: “We’ve had it up to here, but we’re going to fight like soldiers - except after this hurricane, there’s not going to be a Fort Pierce.”

That was an exaggeration, but no doubt existed that Jeanne was stronger than Frances - its winds were more concentrated, and at least 20 mph stronger.

It also was nearly as large as Frances - Jeanne’s hurricane-force winds stretched 70 miles inland, and its tropical storm-force winds swept completely through Broward County.

And it was wetter than Frances — Jeanne propelled gray, horizontal sheets of rain deeply into Miami-Dade.

“They are really going to get clobbered up there,” Mayfield said. “This storm is not Frances. It’s worse than Frances - and will cause more damage than Frances.”

And not just on the Treasure Coast.

Strong winds raged in Palm Beach County, local flooding in South Florida was a possibility, and widespread flooding in Central and North Florida seemed nearly certain.

Given the multiple, ugly possibilities, emergency managers didn’t take any chances.

They airlifted and trucked tons of meals, water and ice - plus blankets, roof tarps and medical supplies — to Homestead, Lakeland and Jacksonville, all within hours of the anticipated hardest-hit spots.

“I can assure you that, a week from now, Florida will be a better place to be than it is right now,” said Gov. Jeb Bush. “There is help coming for the people who will be impacted by this storm.”

More than 2 million people throughout the state, including many in Miami-Dade and Broward, were ordered or urged to flee their homes, but many did not listen.

State officials said many residents had grown complacent and weary - numbed by the three other hurricanes that have hammered the state in the past six weeks.

Further north, residents of Jacksonville watched the mayhem elsewhere and expressed relief as Jeanne’s projected track moved west. “This area’s been blessed,” said Mayor John Peyton.

So far.

Florida’s hurricane season runs for two more months.

The name behind Jeanne lived in Miami

Published Sept. 29, 2004

Behind every great hurricane, there’s a . . . woman?

In this case, there is a real Jeanne behind Hurricane Jeanne. She’s Jeanne Van Wyck, a member of the First United Methodist Church of South Miami who has lived in Miami since the late 1950s with husband George and their two children.

“I’m a pacifist,” said the 75-year-old grandmother of two. “I’m not going to do any harm.”

Unlike Hurricane Jeanne, of course, which killed more than 1,500 after slamming into Haiti, the northern Bahamas and the Treasure Coast.

Van Wyck came to have a Category 3 storm as her namesake through her longtime friendship with Gilbert Clark, a senior forecaster with the National Hurricane Center, who served from 1955 through the 1989 hurricane season. The families vacationed together.

Hurricane Jeanne is named after Jeanne Van Wyck of Miami, seen here on Sept. 28, 2004, a friend of former Hurricane forecaster Gilbert Clark. One of the Clark’s tasks was to come up with a list of names in the 1970’s. He submitted his family and friends names. Writer: Al Diaz Miami Herald File

One of Clark’s jobs was to help suggest names for hurricanes. Since 1953, Atlantic tropical storms have been named from lists originated by the center in West Miami-Dade and maintained and updated by a committee of the World Meteorological Organization, based in Geneva. The reasoning is that proper names for storms facilitate communication among forecasters and the general public.

In 1979, when it was deemed hurricanes should be named for both men and women — up to that point only women’s names were used — Clark helped come up with a new list.

Clark threw Jeanne’s name into the mix, along with the names of his wife, Nancy, and their children, Dane, Roxanne and Allen. He also picked the names of the Van Wyck children, Diana and Beryl. Allen came up right away, in 1980, devastating the Texas coastline. Hurricane Diana was retired after being responsible for 96 deaths in Mexico in 1990. Beryl was a tropical storm in 2000, while Hurricane Roxanne crossed the Yucatán and killed 19 along the Mexican coast in 1995. Nancy’s name wasn’t used in the Atlantic.

His colleagues selected one more name: Gilbert, which grew into a Category 5 beast that slammed into the Lesser Antilles, Jamaica, the Yucatán Peninsula and Mexico in 1988. It was dubbed “The Storm of the Century” for its 200-mph winds and 600-mile reach.

Nothing about Jeanne’s personality screamed that she needed a hurricane named after her, Clark says. “I put names of people I knew.”

Van Wyck didn’t think much about it. Until now.

“Every year that it would come up it was so minor,” she said. The first Hurricane Jeanne blew out to sea in 1998.

Hurricane names are recycled every six years unless they turn into major storms and inflict major damage and deaths. Then, like Andrew, they’re retired.

It’s safe to say Jeanne won’t be coming around again. Her namesake is not upset.

“I see how horrible it was. We have two Frans in our church and I was kidding [with one]: ‘What you didn’t do, I did.’ . . . But my heart is with those people,” Van Wyck said.

The name Jeanne didn’t lead to any razzing for the Miami housewife.

“Half the people don’t think of me, they just think it’s the name of a storm.”

Her old friend, now retired and living with his wife in Pearsall, Texas, laughed when he heard that. “Now everybody knows Jeanne!” said Clark, 81.

There is one benefit to having a major storm named for her, Van Wyck noted.

“For years I fought to get everyone to pronounce my name correctly,” she said. “It’s Jeanne. Not Jeannie. Now it’s gotten straight.”

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Miami Herald Real Time/Breaking News reporter Howard Cohen, a 2017 Media Excellence Awards winner, has covered pop music, theater, health and fitness, obituaries, municipal government and general assignment. He started his career in the Features department at the Miami Herald in 1991.
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