All Clear from Dorian After a Weary Vigil. What Have We Learned?

Dorian is gone from Central Florida. Good riddance. You can stand down locally, help out the Bahamas if you can, and spare good thoughts for those still in the path going forward.

There’s of course still a passing chance of a rain band or two coming through central Florida, but we were tremendously fortunate to have been relatively unscathed by what was a truly monstrous storm. All residents of the attractions area… and especially those for whom this was their first hurricane… would be well-advised to review a few things in the wake of this storm and ask yourself a few questions: “What did I do well?” and “what could I have done better?” Because there absolutely will be a next time.

Forecasting:
I know we were in “will it or won’t it” mode for a very long period of time with this storm. If this is your first hurricane, know that this one was not how they normally happen. We usually have a better idea of what they’re going to do and we usually don’t have to wait so long to find out. But believe it or not, the forecast was GOOD. I know it doesn’t seem like it because there was so much uncertainty. Make no mistake… there is always at least a little uncertainty on the last-minute path of the eye. Just ask any local who went through Irma… or Ivan… or Charley… or Matthew. Two of those veered away at the last minute… and two veered toward us at the last minute. It can absolutely change even on a well-established high-confidence track. And the forecasters clearly stated repeatedly that due to the unique nature of this storm, there was high uncertainty in the long-term track. But the “macro” forecast was really really good. They knew a week out that it was going to turn north. They didn’t know exactly when, but they knew that it was going to. And that’s something that they wouldn’t have known even a decade or two ago. The National Hurricane Center has made it clear that had this been 20 years back, 5 million people in south Florida would have been evacuated.

Forecast Communications:
The hyper-sensationalized style of hurricane coverage that has become the norm lately is enough to drive anyone crazy… especially in an age where every single model run of every single forecast model is available on the internet. There is always going to be a model run that shows us getting demolished. And those are the ones that people seem to like to share online. One also usually shows the storm veering away. And we want to believe that one and ignore the others because it’s comforting. But forecasters know you can’t look at just one run of one model. You look for consistency among multiple models over time… because that is where the truth is. Let’s say your kid has a fever. You take her temperature with two different thermometers. One says 98.6 degrees. Another says 120 degrees. Which one do you believe? One is saying your child is literally as hot as Death Valley… so that one is probably an outlier. But maybe you check again with a different thermometer, or take her temperature again 20 minutes later and see what it says. During the leadup to any storm, surround yourself with sensible, informed, non-sensational weather coverage from people who can effectively communicate the true situation. I highly recommend WFTV, Florida Storms, the Florida Public Radio Emergency Network, and of course the National Hurricane Center and the National Weather Service. Most importantly, beware of those Facebook groups that are run by a hobbyist who is convinced that they can see something that the National Hurricane Center has missed. You know very well that I am not a trained meteorologist… but you also know damn well that that I am not smarter than the hundreds of trained professionals at the National Freaking Hurricane Center.

Closures:
Because of the high level of uncertainty, it was extremely difficult for the central Florida attractions to figure out what to do… close early, close completely, open late, open as normal? Each one likely did the best they could based on the info that they had… and that information kept changing. It’ll never be perfect… and they’ll always have someone mad at them.

Preparations:
I’m going to be blunt here but it comes from a place of love. If this was your first hurricane “scare” and you think you wasted all of that time, money, effort, and anxiety to prepare… you are simply wrong. It’s natural to feel this way. But as a crusty veteran of several “hits” and “misses,” please please please believe me that preparing is exactly what you should do. Every time. It is never a waste. Yes, sometimes the hurricane will play you for a fool. But sometimes it won’t. And I’d rather be prepared and wearing my clown makeup than not prepared and wishing I was. Back when I was a wee little weather dweeb, I was living in Georgia about an hour southwest of Atlanta (not exactly hurricane central). And Hurricane Opal was futzing around in the Gulf. And then, with very little warning, Opal strengthened explosively and was going to head directly our way at full strength. We had about 8 hours to prepare. We did what we could in that short amount of time. In the end, we were without power for a week. Fortunately we had jugged up some water (we had a well, so no power = no water), we had a bunch of canned food already, and we were able to get through it. That brings me to another point…

The best way to prepare is to pre-prepare:
You no doubt saw the meme that Black Friday ain’t got nothin’ on a Florida Walmart before a hurricane. And if you have sensitive ears or are a member of the clergy, don’t ask any local what they think of Amazon’s delivery practices in the days immediately prior to a storm. If you can find any way to afford it, consider pre-preparing before the hurricane even becomes a threat to you. There are very few things you’d have to buy that you wouldn’t normally use outside of a storm.

  • One of the easiest and cheapest ways to get started is to simply increase your normal non-perishable grocery inventory (what’s always in your pantry)… and you can slowly build up to this over time. Next time you shop, buy an extra can or two of something. Then the next time, do the same with something else. Having twice as much cereal and soup as you normally would buy gives you some immunity from having to raid the grocery store for canned goods just prior to a storm hitting. This becomes part of your regular grocery shopping… you don’t have a separate hurricane pantry. Rather than only buying more Spaghettios when you run out, you buy more when you get below five cans of them. This is exactly how restaurants do their food purchases. Chez Fancypants Bistro doesn’t wait until they’re out of lobster to buy more lobster… they know that if they have less than 10 lobsters in the tank they need to buy more lobster.
  • Consider a longterm plan. It won’t help much for this season, but you can spread all of the preparation costs out over six months or so. Just do a search for “family disaster supplies calendar.” (The version linked here is actually from California, so it has a heavy focus on earthquake prep… but there are several versions out there. Look around and find one you like.) Having that food and those supplies in place well before the storm means you can focus your limited prep time on refueling your vehicle, refilling prescriptions, and finding ice if needed… rather than playing rock paper scissors with some schmuck at Publix over the last can of Chef Boyardee.
  • Think ahead about a few slightly larger purchases you can make “today” that will save you money “tomorrow” (or just make your life easier during a storm). For example, $20 reusable multi-gallon water containers that you can refill each time are much more cost-effective in the long run than buying bottled water for every hurricane forever. And of course it’s more environmentally friendly. And $20-$30 battery-powered desktop fans can make a big difference in your quality of life when there’s no air conditioning.
  • If you do occasionally have extra money to spend (I’m looking at you, months with five Thursdays instead of four), consider using part of your “playcheck” at least once a year to buy something that costs a little more but will help you out in the long run. For example, a hand-crank/battery radio… a solar powered phone charger or battery bank… or a Yeti-style cooler that may cost a couple of hundred bucks but will keep ice frozen and food cold for a helluva lot longer than a styrofoam one from the convenience store. Each of those items can be used throughout the year for a number of fun purposes too… not just for the odd hurricane.

Don’t Panic:
I say it all the time, and there’s a reason. Storms can be scary. But we live in an absolutely amazing time (see the Forecasting section above). We have a device in our pocket that can harness the entirety of mankind’s knowledge of the world. We live in an age of weather satellites that update every 30 seconds. Computer models are amazingly accurate for a week out and getting better every year. We have weather radar and alerts that literally follow us wherever we are and buzz in our hands. We have something that people have quested for centuries to achieve… accurate weather predictions and information at our fingertips. Our state has one of the densest weather sensor networks in the world thanks to the space program. We live in buildings that are stronger than ever thanks to Hurricane Andrew. Our power lines are mostly underground, better protected from wind. Cellular technology is amazingly robust during storms. Disaster response and medical technology is better than ever. And your friends and neighbors have been through these things over and over, so they know what to expect and can help you understand. Central Florida today is probably better prepared to survive any storm that may come our way than any other time and place in human history. So to whatever extent you can, don’t panic. Stay generally informed about whatever is brewing in the tropics, but don’t automatically presume that every single wave coming off the coast of Africa will become a storm that is headed straight for us. Stay in the loop during the lead-up to a storm but also take some mental breaks from the coverage until it’s time to digest immediate life-saving information. Get the right information from reliable sources, and prepare for a storm when there’s a reasonable chance it will come our way. There may still be some damage. But we will get through the storms, whatever they may bring.

The bottom line:
Central Florida got lucky with this one. You saw what this storm did in the Bahamas, and it is not inconceivable that something similar could happen here some day. Florida has been hit before, and it’ll be hit again. Florida has been missed before, and it’ll be missed again. Taking a few steps to be ready will GREATLY reduce the amount of anxiety you have in the lead-up to the storm. You’ll still worry about whether the storm is going to hit… but you’ll have much less to juggle physically and mentally in the days leading up to it.

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