Hurricane Georges Tests Florida's Preparations for Weathering Storms
Inland hotels are packed with evacuees and water pumps are working overtime, but some Keys residents chose to ride out storm.
MIAMI — Draw a line across the Caribbean, east to west, touching as many large islands as possible and what you end up with is a near perfect depiction of the recent path of hurricane Georges.
With scores of people killed and damage estimated in excess of $1 billion, the late-season storm has left a trail of woe and soggy wreckage across Antigua, Guadeloupe, St. Kitts, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Cuba.
With the storm now bearing down on Florida, the challenge for public-safety and emergency personnel on the United States mainland is to prevent further loss of life and to keep property damage to a minimum.
If they succeed, it will be the result of years of preparations.
Emergency officials along Florida's Gulf and Atlantic coasts are expected to order mandatory evacuations should hurricane Georges track close to or over the peninsula. It would mean the phased relocation of a large percentage of the state's population, including many elderly residents who may need extra time and help to bundle up valuables and find shelter.
Officials in the Florida Keys began evacuating tourists from Key West as early as Tuesday. They had to start early, since the Keys' 80,000 residents can move out on only one strip of blacktop.
A major hurricane has not hit the Keys directly since 1965. In the decades since, the chain of islands has been host to an unprecedented building boom, including 82 trailer parks and other cheap housing built without thought to an eight-foot tidal surge or wind-borne debris traveling in excess of 100 m.p.h.
But the evacuation traffic earlier this week did not include everyone. Many residents decided to ride out the storm in their houses or houseboats, and deputy sheriffs don't have authority to physically remove people from their homes.
The arrival of Georges in or near south Florida is also the first opportunity to test more stringent building codes adopted in the Miami region since hurricane Andrew caused about $25 billion in damage to homes and businesses in 1992.
In the wake of Andrew, all new homes constructed in Broward County, north of Miami, must come equipped with heavy-duty hurricane shutters. In addition, garage doors include extra bracing, doors must have heavier hardware, and roofs are tied down to foundations with more steel straps.
The beefed-up construction raised housing prices by as much as 10 percent, according to The Miami Herald. But building officials and many homeowners hope the extra cost will more than pay for itself should hurricane-force winds threaten.
It isn't just wind that concerns many in south Florida. hurricane Georges is a large, slow-moving storm with thick clouds saturated with enough rain to swamp the region. Earlier this week the ground was already waterlogged, and drainage canals filled to capacity after a weekend that brought more than a foot of rainfall to many sections of southern Florida.
A hurricane the size of Georges is capable of dumping another 10 inches of rain in a single day, meteorologists say. That could put entire neighborhoods in deep water - literally.
Technicians at the South Florida Water Management District are working overtime to pump millions of gallons of recent rain water through 2,000 miles of drainage canals and into the Atlantic Ocean or Florida Bay. The state is so flat that it can take many days to drain the canals.
One indication of the water managers' desperation came earlier this week when they began rerouting excess water into Lake Okeechobee. They try to avoid pumping excess canal water into the lake because environmentalists are concerned the polluted canal water will eventually flow south into Florida's sensitive Everglades. But under the circumstance, officials say they had no alternative.
Hurricane experts are cautioning that Georges is a particularly difficult storm to track.
But some officials say that should the hurricane follow a predicted route up the western coast of Florida it would present a major test of evacuation plans for one city after another, including Naples, Fort Myers, Sarasota, St. Petersburg, and Tampa.
Part of the difficulty is that many of these residents would usually head to hotels inland at Orlando. But most of those rooms are already occupied by evacuees from the Keys and south Florida.