The new hurricane mentality in Florida

Even with back-to-back storms, many residents resolve to stay in the state - except when hurricanes pass through.

Every paradise has a rainy day.

Hawaii has volcanoes. California has earthquakes and wildfires. Florida has mosquitoes the size of beagles - and the occasional hurricane.

At least that was the conventional wisdom until last weekend when the Sunshine State got clobbered for the second time in three weeks by hurricane-force winds.

Now in the wake of hurricanes Charley and Frances - and with a possible third strike from hurricane Ivan - some residents are beginning to wonder whether Florida has become too dangerous for human habitation.

"We will probably see some people leave Florida now," says James Gilkeson, a finance professor at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. "They'll want to get out because they are scared."

But a trip through one of the hardest-hit areas of St. Lucie County reveals that many hurricane survivors still want to live in Florida - just not while a major hurricane is passing through.

Morris Griffith boarded up his home prior to the storm, but still lost part of his roof. He says if another Category 2 hurricane threatens, he and his family will ride out the storm, as they did Frances, with friends in a secure home with hurricane shutters. But he quickly adds, "If it is Category 3 or higher, we're heading out of state."

Handling natural disasters

Many longtime Florida residents acknowledge there are dangers associated with living at the edge of the tropics. They note that earthquakes, volcanoes, and tornadoes offer little if any advance warning. But with modern weather satellites and other monitoring equipment, hurricanes almost never arrive without several days of prior warning.

To those who prepare, the early warning offers enough time to take meaningful measures to protect lives and property, and, if necessary, get out of the way.

The difficulty, hurricane experts say, is that many parts of Florida have not experienced a major hurricane since explosive growth and development has changed the landscape. A large number of Florida residents have been lulled into a false sense of security, they say.

But now that may be changing.

Even kids are getting the message. Asked what advice he would give to children elsewhere who hadn't lived through a hurricane, 13-year-old Mattavious Genes offers a proclamation worthy of a police chief: "If a hurricane comes, you should go someplace safe that is not in [a mandatory] evacuation area because, if not, there will be consequences and repercussions."

One key to surviving in a hurricane-prone region is having a network of friends and family spread across various parts of the state.

Last month, when hurricane Charley threatened his home in Fort Myers, Lt. Cliff Morine of the Marco Island Police Department sent his wife and daughter to stay with his mother, who lives on Hutchinson Island, east of Fort Pierce.

Then last week. as hurricane Frances approached Florida's east coast, Lieutenant Morine's mom stayed at his house in Fort Myers. The hurricane blew off a portion of his mother's roof, leaving her carpets a soggy mess.

"It's not enough to make me want to leave the state, but I don't want to go through it anymore," says Morine, who volunteered for relief duty in Fort Pierce.

If anyone deserves to be scared enough to leave the state, it is Pamela Wolkowsky, who spent an endless night with her husband, Sam, fighting a torrent of wind and rain after hurricane Frances peeled much of the tin off the roof like an old sardine can.

"It was the most frightening, horrifying experience of my life," she says. "I thought the whole house was going to come down."

The Wolkowskys' home is about a mile from the Indian River in a wooded neighborhood at the edge of a state wildlife preserve. The open vista means there was little to block the wind.

When the tin from the roof peeled back, it left open nail holes in the remaining roof boards. Water poured through. The Wolkowskys retreated into a utility closet and then a bathroom.

During a 15-minute lull as a corner of the eye passed, Mrs. Wolkowsky made a frantic call to their next-door neighbor, who was staying with relatives in nearby Port St. Lucie. The neighbor said no one was in her house but that if the Wolkowskys needed shelter, they could seek it in her home.

"This woman was willing to have her door broken down to save our lives, and we don't even know her," Mrs. Wolkowsky says. Rather than break the door down and possibly jeopardize their neighbor's house, the Wolkowskys went home.

The Wolkowskys' plan

The couple rigged a makeshift canopy over their bed with two shower curtains. "If we were going to be found dead, we weren't going to be found wet," she explains.

Then, she says, the most important event of the storm occurred. It was a thought that came to her, a message of hope: "I will not forsake you."

The next day after the storm, another neighbor across the street opened his home to the couple so they could get a good night's sleep.

Mrs. Wolkowsky acknowledges the storm made a major impression on her, an impression marked not by fear, but gratitude for caring neighbors and what she sees as divine protection.

Asked if she's now considering moving to a state without hurricanes, she answers immediately. When another hurricane threatens her home, she'll head north for Georgia, Alabama, or Mississippi to wait out the storm. Then, she says, she'll come home to Florida.

"I will never leave these people," Mrs. Wolkowsky says of her neighbors.

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