Tag Archives: Florida hurricanes

Florida’s 2024 Hurricane Season: Don’t Panic

Great Miami Hurricane barometer via National Weather Service
As Florida’s 2024 hurricane season begins, let’s remember how far we’ve come with forecasting. Pictured: Barometer from the 1926 hurricane.
Photo courtesy of the National Weather Service.

As Florida’s 2024 hurricane season opens, Rick Kilby and I talked about Florida’s hurricane history, hurricane prep, and — this is clutch — how to prepare without freaking out.

My forthcoming book, Florida Spectacular: Extraordinary Places and Exceptional Lives, has a chapter about how Florida forecasting and experience has made the world better prepared  for a storm. (Hey, if you want to pre-order that, please do so from an indie bookstore like St. Pete’s Tombolo Books. We all love Amazon but we having bookstores in our cities and towns more, right?)

It sounds odd, but I’m a huge fans of hurricanes. I’ve written before about the Hurricane of 1928, and wrote a series about the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in the Everglades and Florida Keys.

Why my fascination? Well, while no one wants to see loss of life, hurricanes are a vital part of the natural order of things. Without them, we’d have devastating forest fires, too many nutrients in our rivers and lakes, and less food production in the ocean. There’s a host of benefits — don’t take my word for it; check out this article — but it’s hard to appreciate those when there’s an oak tree in your living room and you suddenly have waterfront property that may have downed live power lines, right?

So, don’t fear hurricanes. Prepare. Rick and I talk about some ways you can do that on our podcast. Take a listen.

Florida’s 2024 Hurricane Season: Links We Mentioned

Hurricanes.gov

Oranges and Alligators: Sketches of South Florida Life by Iza Duffy Hardy

Stormy Weather by Carl Hiaasen

Hurricane prep suggestions: Turn off your TV and check hurricanes.gov, the least weather-terroristy source for real news. Instead of bottled water, buy five gallon reusable jugs (we suggest glass, but you can get plastic ones, too) and a USB-powered water dispenser (you can recharge it in your car if needed). You can also get a five-galloon cooler with a dispenser built in the bottom.

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How I Found the Best Island in the Florida Panhandle

Part one: Getting there

We had the July 4th all planned: a couple of nights at Suwannee River State Park, then spend the holiday weekend camping in Apalachicola National Forest.

We had our reasons, and the main one was that we have a sweet coonhound who can’t handle the sound of something frying, thunderstorms, or fireworks. Calypso, our dachshund, has no such issue – she sleeps through the latter two, and at the sound of something frying she’s in the kitchen by my feet, living her life on the premise that everyone drops food eventually (she’s not wrong) – but does get annoyed when fireworks/thunderstorms sends Banyan scrambling into bed with us, waking her in the process. We have a king-sized bed, but a hysterical coonhound frantically scrabbling to get between us … well, let’s just say it disrupts a peaceful night’s rest.

Coonhound with teddy bear
Meet Banyan and her fireworks support teddy bear.

Every Fourth of July, this causes problems, because in addition to city fireworks, some of our neighbors like to exercise what they view as their god-given right to celebrate the start of the American War of Independence.

Banyan’s more of a loyalist (as was Florida, the forgotten 14th colony that refused to join the other 13) so she’s not so much on the fireworks.

This year, we realized that having a camper meant we didn’t have to torture ourselves (or, more importantly, our dog) and could go camping instead. Where, we asked ourselves, would fireworks be so off-limits that we stood no chance of them happening on July 4? Why, the forest, of course. We already had reservations for the end of June at Suwannee River State Park, so all we had to do was add a few days on to our trip at a nearby forest.

Suwannee River State Park was cool (literally, it was the end of June and we could sleep with the windows open in the camper).

With reservations in hand, we left Suwannee River SP and headed to the Apalachicola National Forest in the panhandle. If you’ve ever camped in a Florida state park but not a national forest, don’t assume they’re even remotely close to the same thing. Unlike state parks, national forests don’t have a robust staff, and in this instance, the only people there to assist us were the campground hosts. We met them when they drove up in their golf car, friendly as can be and smoking like it’s going out of style (which, come to think of it, it may be.)

The smoking made sense of one thing I’d seen when I’d walked down to Camel Lake to take in the splendor of the forest: shredded bits of cigarette wrappers, and cigarette butts. Nothing ruins the majesty of the forest like seeing the remnants of 305’s, the only tobacco product with the distinction of having even poorer grammar than health benefits.

So, OK, that’s not great, but we’re in the forest, and the only other camper in the camping area leaves the next day, our camp hosts tell us. The idea of having part of the forest almost completely to ourselves overrides a little bit of nicotine-littered greenery, right?

But then our camp hosts tell us the forest campground’s sold out for the holiday weekend. Almost as an afterthought, I ask, “There can’t be fireworks, though, right?”

“We won’t say anything,” the woman replies.

This is not the answer we want.

“I thought it wouldn’t be allowed, because, you know…” I gesture at the longleaf pines, in the midst of a massive restoration effort, then try and word the second half of my sentence as gently as one can when talking to someone who throws cigarette butts out in the forest, “the danger of fire.”

“Well, the ranger might come by, and of course, if it goes past quiet time, we’ll have to tell people to quiet down.”

Picture of Camel Pond at Apalachicola National Forest, taken from the shore line. Trees in background. Photo by Cathy Salustri.
The camp hosts also told us we didn’t need to worry about swimming in Camel Pond, because the gators there were small. Pro tip: Where you find baby gators, you will find a ferociously protective mama gator.

Later that night, we talk about our options which, if you’ve tried to get last-minute camping reservations in Florida during the summer during a pandemic, you know it isn’t easy. We fall asleep listening to the sound of nothing but the breeze in the pines.

The next day, I drive north to Torreya State Park. I’m curious to see how the Torreya tree fared since Hurricane Michael decimated its habitat. I also have some research questions about the Gregory House – namely, why the hell did CCC workers move it across the river – wasn’t there another house closer? (No, apparently.)

Torreya tree in Torreya State Park, Florida. Photo by Cathy Salustri.
If you think Torreya taxiflora looks like a teeny, tiny Christmas tree, you’re not alone. That cuteness, coupled with a vicious fungus, contributed to their almost-extinction. I photographed this tree in 2011; it did not survive Hurricane Michael in 2019.

At the park, I chat with Jason Vickery, the amazing park manager, and a park ranger (also amazing) about the Torreya and the forest health, and how copperhead bites are rarely fatal (who knew?) but nevertheless how nice it would be if the Nature Conservancy would send some indigo snakes up their way (indigos, aside from being gorgeous and nonvenomous, feed on venomous snakes, but are scarce because, to make a long story short, humans are pretty much the worst.)

After I’d talk them out (I really do love Florida’s state park rangers), I ask about local campground availability and explain our dilemma. They both suggested I the regional headquarters for the National Forest Service would want to know that the camp hosts were allowing fireworks and throwing cigarette butts on the ground, but I hesitate: Do I want to spend the night in the middle of nothingness with a couple who knew I’d complained about them? Would telling HQ matter?

Fun fact: Most Florida state parks have some campground inventory they hold for manager’s discretion. Typically it’s about 10% of the sites, and those can be for walk-ups or the manager’s discretion (don’t bank on these when camping!) The staff at Torreya offered us one such campsite, but it wouldn’t have worked – I drove and took a look, and it was too small for our trailer (which isn’t large, but the campground at Torreya SP isn’t large… remember, it was built during the Great Depression, when campers slept in tents or their cars, not campers.)

But that gave me an idea. I parked the car and pulled out my treasured Florida Gazetteer, the one I bought in 2008 for grad school (when you get a master’s degree in Florida this is a required textbook). Weak cell service wouldn’t let me peruse the state park website, but I can use an atlas, and soon enough, I’d landed on a park only a couple hours from the forest.

Close-up of map page from Florida Gazetteer, with highlighting on different roads. Photo by Cathy Salustri.
I bought my copy of the Florida Gazetteer in grad school. I mapped the routes from the 1939 “Guide to the Southernmost State” in it (as evidenced by blue highlighting) and even falling apart, I can’t bear to get a new one. It’s an invaluable travel tool if you really want to get on Florida’s backroads, where cell service is a luxury.

I called the park and threw myself on their mercy.

“I’m not supposed to tell you if we have that kind of site available tomorrow,” the man on the phone tells me, “But be here at 8 a.m.”

I ask some more questions and learn that this park has an ADA site available, and if I can get there before the park closes and no one else has claimed it, it’s ours for the night.

We packed the camper and got on the road in record time, pausing only to tell the camp hosts we would not return.

Where did we land? Look to the left of this screen, at the top, and click “subscribe” to never miss a post.

Camper with bikes on the back, set up for camping. Nissan Xterra in background, with two kayaks on top of it. Photo by Cathy Salustri.
It took us all of 30 minutes to pack the camper, disconnect, and head south to a state park, hoping for a last-minute campsite and a reprieve from fireworks.

The Great Miami Hurricane and COVID19

And yes, they are related.

For the past few weeks, I’ve thought a lot about the Hurricane of 1926 in Miami and how it relates to a global pandemic. 

The Hurricane of 1926 made landfall in Florida just before midnight on September 17, 1926. Most of the people in southeast Florida were new to the area (thanks, land boom!) and thus had never endured a hurricane but they hunkered down in their Miami homes as the first bands of the storm blew in from the Atlantic.

And then the eye passed over, and all was calm. Anxious to get out of their houses (if you’ve ever ridden out a hurricane you know the feeling), everyone went outside and checked on their neighbors and started clearing debris. 

U.S. National Weather Service Forecaster Richard Gray kept telling people that it wasn’t safe yet, to go inside, that the storm wasn’t over. But the people didn’t listen. The sky had cleared and the winds had all but come to a stop. Plus, they had work to do. They had destruction all around them, downed trees and construction debris everywhere (Miami and surrounding areas had quite a bit of construction happening at this time, again, yay, land boom.)

It must have felt vitally important to those folks that they do something. The storm had all but torn away all semblance of their normal lives, and they likely wanted to get back to normal as quickly as possible. How foolish was Gray, they must have thought, not to see that the storm had cleared. I have no proof of this, but I’m fairly certain at least one person probably suggested Gray was perpetrating a hoax to help get more money for National Weather Service funding come federal budget time. 

And so they left their homes and started clearing debris.

But after the eye comes, as every Floridian knows, the back side of the storm. And the back side of the storm is the worst part. When the second wave washed across Southeast Florida (literally; there was a 10-foot storm surge,) the people outside didn’t have time to seek adequate shelter. Gray had warned them, but there was no other warning before the winds picked up again and started blowing around all those downed trees and lumber from the first part of the hurricane. After the eye passed the and hurricane’s second half started, storm winds hurled those trees and lumber around at speeds of 155 MPH. 

The Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 killed almost 400 people and injured more than 6,000 others. Damages totaled what would be, in today’s dollars, $164 billion. The storm damage propelled Florida into the Great Depression three years ahead of the rest of the country.

The Miami Hurricane didn’t only damage south Florida, however — it continued on to Pensacola, where it struck Florida again and raged for 20 hours on Sept. 20, destroying pretty much every wharf, building and boat in the city. After that, it finally made landfall a third time in Mobile, Alabama.

What gets me about this story is simple: They were warned. They were warned and they went outside anyway.

Smart Floridians know that the storm isn’t over just because the wind has stopped. Do with this story what you will, but me? I’m with Forecaster Gray, and I intend to ride out the rest of this storm in my house. 

Fact check me here