Fighting hurricane complacency crucial to maintaining safety

South Florida has seen many hurricanes over the years, but as August 1992 rolled in, it had been 27 years since a severe hurricane – Betsy – had impacted the area. 

Speaking at the National Hurricane Conference in Orlando, Florida earlier this year, hurricane specialist Bryan Norcross of The Weather Channel recalled the situation in Miami, where he was a television meteorologist at the time – as Hurricane Andrew approached. 

“The lack of [hurricane] activity and the increase of population set us up royally,” he said. 

Grand Cayman was similarly set up as Hurricane Ivan approached in 2004. Although there had been a number of brushes with hurricanes over the years, it had been 16 years since Hurricane Gilbert caused moderate damage and some 70 years since Grand Cayman residents had felt the brunt of a severe hurricane. In the years since Gilbert, the population had more than doubled, with many of the residents coming from areas that don’t experience hurricanes. As a result, there was a lot of complacency when it came to preparing for hurricane season. 

The destruction caused by Hurricane Ivan quickly put a stop to hurricane complacency, and in the years that immediately followed residents were well prepared. But Hazard Management Cayman Islands Director McCleary Frederick said he believes complacency is returning. 

“It has been quite a considerable period of time – eight years – since Hurricane Ivan and about four years since Hurricane Paloma, and with the passage of time, the memory of Hurricane Ivan is beginning to fade,” he said. “I think we are beginning to relax, especially after having a few years when we haven’t experienced a tropical cyclone. In addition, since that time there are a significant number of expatriate workers who have come to the Islands and may not have experienced a hurricane and may be unprepared.” 

At the National Hurricane Conference, Bryan Koon, the director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said that it doesn’t take long for complacency to set it. 

“We’ve had no land-falling hurricanes in six years,” he said. “Every year you go without one, you risk more complacency with your citizens.” 

Mr. Koon said. “People have very short attention spans; people have very short memories.” 

To help fight complacency, Mr. Koon said his organisation has worked to improve its relationships with both the private sector and the academic community, both of which can help tremendously in spreading the message of hurricane preparedness.  

Here in Cayman, Mr. Frederick said every year Hazard Management Cayman Islands puts preparedness tips on the radio stations and sets up informational booths at hardware stores on weekends. He said Hazard Management also sets up a booth at the Island Living Show and “anywhere else that we can in an effort to get the message of preparedness out to the public.” 

Because Cayman has a long history with hurricanes over the centuries, Mr. Frederick thinks most Caymanians are aware of the threat. 

“I think most of our young Caymanians have heard the message from their parents or in HMCI’s outreach programme in the schools, but I am concerned that some of the expatriate population really do not appreciate how they can be affected by a hurricane,” he said. 

Even those who went through Hurricane Ivan and remember it well could be at risk of complacency, Mr. Frederick said. 

“I believe there are a lot of people who are assessing their risk based on their Hurricane Ivan experience, which is a good benchmark,” he said. “The problem with that is that while Hurricane Ivan was a powerful hurricane and they survived the experience, we have to remember that each storm is different. The characteristics of another storm may pose a different set of circumstances that may affect us differently, so we must be vigilant in our preparation and reaction to impending threats.” 

Indeed, depending on which direction a hurricane passes Grand Cayman, impacts like storm surge flooding and wave action could be different. A major hurricane coming from the south and heading northeast – a scenario likely with late-season storms – could cause much more damage to Cayman’s Seven Mile Beach and north coast areas. 

Another reason for complacency involved hype of false alarms. Media outlets will often start warning people about an approaching storm and in many cases, the storms either go a different direction, fizzle out or fail to strengthen. Outgoing National Hurricane Center Director Bill Read said at the Hurricane Conference that he hears people complain about this kind of thing. 

“Three out of four times, I’m going to tell you [about a storm] and you’re going to get pissed off because there’s nothing there,” he said. “But one time, there will be. The problem is, I can’t tell you which time that is.” 

In addition, meteorologists and scientists issue hurricane season forecasts every year. If the forecasters predict a less active season – like this year’s – some people can become complacent. However, as Hurricane Andrew showed during the 1992 hurricane season – one which was correctly predicted to have less overall activity – it only takes one hurricane to impact your particular area for it to be a bad hurricane season. Residents in areas that could be affected by hurricanes – such as the Cayman Islands – are therefore urged to prepare for every hurricane season the same way.  

Max Mayfield, former National Hurricane Center director and a current television hurricane specialist in south Florida, said there will always be a percentage of people who won’t be prepared for a hurricane. 

“I tell those who already prepared to watch out for those who didn’t dust off their hurricane plan,” he said, adding that he was one of the media people who believed in talking about a storm whenever there was even a chance a hurricane could impact south Florida.  

Mr. Frederick understands that doing so can be difficult for some Cayman residents considering the current economic situation. 

“We are currently experiencing very challenging economic times and we realise that many families are finding it difficult with daily survival and that they really can’t afford to put together a comprehensive 72-hour disaster preparedness kit,” he said. “What I am hoping is that people don’t just give up and do nothing. People should do want they can. If that means just putting together a few emergency cans of food and some water to last a day, then that is better than nothing.” 

Hurricane rains

A major hurricane coming from the south and heading northeast, a scenario likely with late-season storms could cause much more damage to Cayman’s Seven Mile Beach and north coast areas. – Photo: File