We were at Hanna Park on Labor Day. It was a beautiful morning to be at the beach. And yet knowing that a storm named Irma was swirling somewhere off in the distance, it was hard not to have a sense of foreboding.
I kept checking my phone, knowing it was way too early, but also knowing it’s the one time of the year I can get away with telling my wife, “I’m looking at models — both American and European models.”
When we waded into the water, instead of just enjoying how warm it felt, I wondered if this is the kind of bathwater that hurricanes gobble up like Popeye eating spinach.
I watched as a family built a sand castle, several stories tall, with steps leading up to the top, knowing full well that it will be washed away soon. And I couldn’t help but look at it and wonder and worry what else in Florida will follow.
I still remember a sunny morning 25 years ago. I lived in Tampa at the time. But I was in South Florida, covering an NFL preseason game.
The morning after the game I woke up to the sound of a voice in my hotel room. I eventually realized that it was coming from a speaker in the ceiling. The hotel was being evacuated. Hurricane Andrew was going to make landfall later that day.
I stumbled to the window, pulled open the blinds and slid open a glass door. It not only was sunny, it was eerily still, mist hanging in the air, shifting ever so slightly.
I packed up and headed across the state, part of me wishing I could stay and ride out the storm.
Yes, I was younger and even dumber then.
Twenty-five years later, I still get complacent at times. But if ever there were a wake-up call, it was how much damage just a sideswipe of Matthew caused here last year and, of course, what already happened to Houston this year.
When Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency, he told citizens that now is the time to prepare for Irma.
“In Florida, we always prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” he said.
This is only partly true. We always prepare for the immediate worst, the next storm. We’re good at mobilizing, cleaning up and rallying around each other. But in Florida, the state most susceptible to rising seas and storm surges, we still don’t prepare for the worst. The long-term, big picture worst. Our leaders barely even talk about it.
It would be one thing if state leaders in North Dakota didn’t pay much attention to sea level rise and scoffed at what scientists were saying. But in Florida? We keep acting as if we just ignore it maybe it will go away.
Houston was a natural disaster of epic proportions. But it also was a man-made disaster, one that didn’t happen overnight but was partly the result of decades of urban planning that ignored and exacerbated flooding, all in the name of growth.
Just last year a lengthy series by the Texas Tribune and ProPublica said: “Houston’s perfect storm is coming — and it’s not a matter of if but when. Why isn’t Texas ready?”
Some cities are taking dramatic steps to be ready. Charleston, for instance, is spending about $250 million – more than 1½ times the city’s annual budget – on underground tunnels and pump stations.
Dallas is building a massive park — 12 times the size of New York’s Central Park — along the Trinity River. It won’t just be an urban playground. It will be land designed to alleviate flooding. The artist renderings actually include what it will look like full of water.
There are a bunch of other examples. I was planning to write something about them before Irma appeared off in the distance. I’ll save that column for a sunny day.
Suffice it to say for that we need to have a serious discussion in this state and this city about truly preparing for the worst. Not right now. Now is the time to prepare for Irma, to make plans, to obsessively watch the models, and to hope for the best — a storm that doesn’t make landfall anywhere.
Cumberland Island, Take 2: I heard from quite a few of you Sunday morning, telling me that a story I wrote didn’t make sense. No, this isn’t the first time I’ve heard this. But in this case, something happened during the production of the paper, eliminating several sections of the story about Carnegie descendants on Cumberland Island. I’m sorry for the confusion. The plan is to re-run the entire column Sunday.