Saturday, September 09, 2006

Hurricanes and Resilience, Part 2

In January 2005, I wrote a piece titled Hurricanes and Resilience, in which I described how well my 80 something year old parents coped with three hurricanes in a less than three month period during 2004. The community in which they live in Central Florida had the dubious distinction of being ground zero for the eye of three separate hurricanes in 2004. When first hurricane left them without power for eight days, I was amazed at their resilience throughtout their ordeal and their steadfast determination to make the best of a very trying situation.

The last couple of years have been among the worst for hurricanes in the Southeast but Tallahassee, in the Big Bend of Florida, has been largely spared from direct hurricane damage. The last really damaging hurricane to affect Tallahassee was Hurricane Kate in 1985 when nearly the entire electrical system for the city was wiped out by fallen trees. The destruction of the city electrical system was so extensive that the day after Kate hit, only one gas station in town was able to pump. Because my neighborhood was in the unincorporated area, it was eight days before our power was restored. Some homes in my neighborhood went as long as eleven days.

Thankfully Kate hit in November, so the lack of air conditioning was not a problem. However, being mostly in the darkness during the entire time we were home was mind numbing. We were more fortunate than most. We had a gas hot water heater which meant we had hot showers. We also had camping equipment to cook with, a lantern for some light, and and a tiny portable tv that we could plug into the car cigarette lighter to watch the news each night. But each morning we would get up in the dark and get ready to go into work in the dark. By the time we got home in the evening, it would be dark again. Luckily we both worked downtown where the power was first restored. Going into work was the highlight of my day.

In the intervening years, the coastal areas had impacts from hurricanes and other storms, most notably Hurricane Opal in 1995 which hit much further west near Destin, but caused major damage to coastal areas in the Big Bend. But because Tallahassee sits about 25 miles inland from the nearest coastal area, it was usually spared. That was until 1994 when tropical storm Alberto moved into North Florida and South Georgia and stalled while dumping massive amounts of rain over the region.

As a result, 14 homes and several vacant lots in my neighborhood flooded with anywhere from one to three feet of water which came in the middle of the night. One of my friends in the flooded area ais that the water rose so fast that they went from a completely dry backyard to nearly two feet of water in less than an hour and a half. Most of the affected residents barely had time to escape their homes and by the next morning, some of them had three feet of water standing in their homes. Since the area was not in a FEMA flood hazard zone, none of the lenders had required flood insurance, and not a single home of the fourteen had flood insurance.

My entire neighborhood pulled together to help these families clean up and repair their homes. Eventually all the homes were repaired, but the cost to the families was much more than financial. Two couples ended up divorcing, several families sought stress counseling for themselves and their children, and several families moved away. Despite the hardships they endured, most of these families recovered from this disaster to resume productive lives.

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