Irma looms as long-feared myth­i­cal ‘Big One’

The Mercury News Weekend - - NEWS - By Curt An­der­son

FORT LAUD­ERDALE, FLA. » They call it the Big One — a mythic, mas­sive hurricane that would oblit­er­ate the densely pop­u­lated south­east coast. And it has long been the stuff of Florida’s night­mares.

Irma, it ap­pears, could be it. The storm has trig­gered near-panic in a re­gion of more than 6 mil­lion peo­ple that in­cludes Mi­ami, Fort Laud­erdale and West Palm Beach, clus­tered along a nar­row rib­bon of coast­line that has seen nearly dou­ble-digit pop­u­la­tion growth over the past five years.

Is­abella Janse Van Vuuren just ar­rived — she left her home in South Africa two weeks ago to start a job as a stew­ardess on a yacht, which she and other crew mem­bers spent time se­cur­ing. As Irma ap­proached, she was try­ing to de­cide whether to stay or go.

“I’m ter­ri­fied,” she said. “I’m not used to this. I just want to go into a cave and hide, ba­si­cally. This is not a nice feel­ing.”

But for vet­er­ans of life in the Sun­shine State, hur­ri­canes are as Florid­ian as or­anges and Mickey Mouse. And ev­ery hurricane sea­son brings with it the chance of cat­a­clysm.

In 1928, a hurricane caused Lake Okee­chobee to burst its banks, un­leash­ing a 20-foot wall of wa­ter that killed an es­ti­mated 2,500 peo­ple. The event was a key part of Zora Neale Hurston’s clas­sic 1937 novel, “Their Eyes Were Watch­ing God.”

“All gods who re­ceive homage are cruel,” she wrote. “All gods dis­pense suf­fer­ing with­out rea­son. Oth­er­wise they would not be wor­shipped. Through in­dis­crim­i­nate suf­fer­ing men know fear and fear is the most divine emo­tion.”

Another famed storm, the killer 1935 La­bor Day hurricane that swept across the Florida Keys, is cen­tral to the plot of the 1948 movie “Key Largo,” which starred Humphrey Bog­art and Lau­ren Ba­call.

Irma could be the strong­est hurricane to ever hit south­ern Florida. An­drew hit in Au­gust 1992 and caused wide­spread dam­age south of Mi­ami. It killed 15 peo­ple and in­di­rectly caused the deaths of 25 more in Mi­ami-Dade County alone, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Hurricane Cen­ter.

“It was very scary. We just had no idea how bad it was go­ing to be,” said Rosi Ramirez, who went through An­drew as a child in Home­stead.

She’s leav­ing Florida for South Carolina with her three chil­dren. “I don’t want my kids to go through that trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ence. I hadn’t thought about An­drew in a while. But now I am see­ing some flashes of what we went through. It is all com­ing back.”

Florid­i­ans have not been directly hit by a ma­jor hurricane since Wilma in 2005, but if they needed any re­minder of what might await them, they saw the cat­a­strophic flood­ing and dam­age caused by the storm Har­vey in Hous­ton. Jenna Wulf, a na­tive Florid­ian who is six months preg­nant, said see­ing the dam­age caused by Har­vey made her fam­ily more cau­tious; she stocked up on wa­ter Satur­day and the hurricane shut­ters are go­ing up on her home in sub­ur­ban Plan­ta­tion.

“I think it’s such dev­as­ta­tion that you’d be silly not to go through the mo­tions,” she said. “I’m ner­vous be­cause I’m preg­nant and be­cause I have a baby al­ready. I’m try­ing not to watch (the news) be­cause I think it’s caus­ing more panic.”

An­drew is of­ten con­sid­ered the worst storm in South Florida’s his­tory. But in terms of fa­tal­i­ties, it didn’t come close to the “Great Mi­ami Hurricane” of Septem­ber, 1926, which killed 372 peo­ple when it came ashore directly over the city, car­ry­ing with it a 10-foot storm surge. Many died af­ter ap­par­ently think­ing the worst was over when the storm’s rel­a­tively calm eye passed over Mi­ami, only to be caught with­out shel­ter in the sec­ond part of the hurricane, ac­cord­ing to a Na­tional Weather Ser­vice his­tory.

“Res­i­dents of the city, un­fa­mil­iar with hur­ri­canes, thought the storm was over and emerged from their places of refuge out into the city streets. Peo­ple even be­gan re­turn­ing to the main­land from Mi­ami Beach. The lull lasted only about 35 min­utes,” the his­tory says.

“The in­ten­sity of the storm and the wreck­age it left can­not ad­e­quately be de­scribed,” it says.

The hurricane brought a halt, at least tem­po­rar­ily, to a growth boom which saw Mi­ami’s pop­u­la­tion more than dou­ble to more than 100,000 in just six years. To­day’s pop­u­la­tion of Mi­ami-Dade County is about 2.7 mil­lion.

Craig Pittman, an en­vi­ron­men­tal re­porter at the Tampa Bay Times and the au­thor of the best­selling book ‘ Oh, Florida,’ said the mythic Big One is just that — a myth. Hur­ri­canes are just a fact of life in a state that is hit by the big storms more of­ten than any other state. And even if the Big One were to strike, he doubts that it would de­ter peo­ple from liv­ing in — or vis­it­ing — what many con­sider par­adise.

“We’re the state that’s con­stantly try­ing to kill us,” he said. “We’re the state with sink­holes, shark bites, al­li­ga­tors and light­ning. And we get hit by hur­ri­canes. Yet peo­ple keep flood­ing here day af­ter day.”

ALAN DIAZ — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Above, vol­un­teers in Mi­ami help res­i­dents fill free sand­bags Thurs­day in prepa­ra­tion for Hurricane Irma. A hurricane watch is now in ef­fect for the Florida Keys and parts of South Florida.

ROB O’NEAL — THE KEY WEST CIT­I­ZEN VIA AP

Left, Key Westers James Sandlin, left, and Chloe Hodg­don, take ad­van­tage of a de­serted “South­ern­most Point of the United States” to take a photo Thurs­day while wav­ing to rel­a­tives via a nearby we­b­cam in Key West. The lo­ca­tion is usu­ally packed with dozens of tourists.

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