This is the first in a multi-part posting about life with hurricanes. I’ve added a few explicit details to non-US audiences.
When you live in Florida, the threat of hurricanes is a part of life. As far as natural disasters go, they’re not too bad; there’s typically plenty of warning so you can prepare or evacuate, and unless you live in a flood-prone area or near the shore, the danger is manageable. Nonetheless, there is that little reminder just lurking in the far corners of your mind reminding you that you’re living here at the mercy of Mother Nature.
But what exactly is that threat?
Fundamentally it is fear for both one’s literal life and for one’s figurative life. Being hurt by the direct impact of the storm, subsequent flooding, looting and violent crime after the storm on one hand, and losing one’s possessions, and the resulting emotional pain and the economic consequences on the other. For people with families and pets, this fear extends to their loved ones. How high the risk of these things is depends a lot on whom you ask, and often people’s perception doesn’t match with reality. Overall, being hit by a major hurricane in any one location in mainland Florida, especially on the Gulf Coast, is relatively low. Tampa Bay for example has not been hit since 1921, although both Charley and Irma were very close calls.
I live in a house built in 2007, so it incorporates all the updates to hurricane building codes following both the devastation from Andrew and the 2004-2005 hurricane seasons. This means the roof isn’t likely to go flying off, and the windows won’t blow in or shatter, and the structure should stay sound. I’m inland, and my lot hast not flooded in the past decade, and I’m not listed in even the latest flood plain maps as being in a flood zone. For anything below a category 4 hurricane the house should be just fine unless I get unlucky and some object comes flying through my window or patio doors, or we get a truly massive amount of rainfall, in which case any place can suffer from flash floods.
I have insurance, but hurricane insurance has very high deductibles, in the thousands of dollars, it’s only really useful against catastrophic loss. Worse, much of the damage may be caused by water (your window or roof breaks, and the house is inundated by driving rain) and unless you have flood insurance it may be an uphill battle to fight with the insurance company whether the water damage will or will not be covered.
In the case of Hurricane Irma, my most immediate rational fear was damage to the building, resulting in a lot of hassle and stress, fighting with insurance, finding contractors to repair the house and make it habitable (when millions of other people are competing for their business), finding a lawyer to deal with insurance (when millions of other people are competing for their help), significant financial loss, and loss of items of emotional importance. The secondary fear was of discomfort and inconvenience; days or weeks with no air conditioning and possible mosquitoes if the windows got broken. Both of these were high-impact/low-probability fears, but ones that I could do realistically do something about, and the magnitude of a bad outcome warranted the caution in my mind. The fear of physical injury or death was pretty far down the list.
Fears of running out of medication, food, water, or not having a place to sleep I had been able to counter by preparing for the storm, and will go into those things in more details in a later post about preparing for a hurricane.
I used to drive by the FEMA camps from Hurricane Charley and saw the years it can take a community to get back on its feet and having all the buildings fixed, so I have no assumptions of workers showing up the week after and get things fixed up in quick order.
I cannot in good conscience end without mentioning that I realize my privilege. I have insurance, and I can survive financially having to spend some nights in a hotel, or having to take Uber to work if my car is damaged, and I can buy supplies ahead of time. I live in a fairly safe community, where I have little fear of looting or not having emergency services available, and I have an employer who will not fire me if I have to stay home to deal with a crisis or evacuate. Indeed, I have a car and the money for gas which allows me to even entertain the idea of evacuating. I have a social support network with the means to lend me housing, tools and other assistance if necessary. Not everyone, including some of my friends, have these capabilities, and to them many of the threats that I do not have to fear are very real.