Nine years ago, on this 21 October 2014, a tropical cyclone for the record books, a strong category 4 hurricane WILMA came over the island of Cozumel in its final approach toward the region of Cancun and the northeastern portion of the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico.
I assessed and documented damage caused by the passage of Wilma over the region, first in a study commissioned by the Quintana Roo State Government completed in early 2006 and then in my book “Paraiso Protegido: Hacia una cultura de mitigacion” (ISBN 978-607-401-556-0) published in February 2012. Additional discussion of the consequences of this hazard event and what we can do to mitigate future hurricane impacts will be the focus of my upcoming book “Hurricane Mitigation for the built environment”, which is scheduled to the see the public light in 2015.
Nine years! This is how long it has been since we have had a land falling hurricane anywhere in Florida. It is a long time and I already detect the influence of ‘hurricane amnesia’ on many fronts, from casual conversations to the actions of public officials regarding given projects that are given green light to proceed without considering potential consequences from future impacts, from recurring hurricanes, or the benefits of incorporating hurricane mitigation measures in the design criteria for such proposed new projects.
Today 21 October 2014 the Gulf of Mexico present rather warm waters and a large system of disturbed weather over the Yucatan peninsula exhibiting some cyclonic tendencies, which appears to be moving in the direction of Florida following a path not unlike the one followed by hurricane Wilma in 2005 as it stroke Florida from the west before traversing our peninsula on 24 October 2005. The official cost of damage figure from the impact of Wilma in Florida is $21.0 billion [in 2005 U.S. Dollars], but there are unofficial estimates reaching as high as $29.0 billion. And Wilma was a tropical cyclone that had been almost dismissively categorized as it approached Florida as “just a category 1 storm” by a weather forecaster on a local TV station.
Whether the amount of physical damage caused by Wilma was $29.0 or only $21.0 billion, it would appear to me as an exorbitant amount caused by a minor hurricane. Especially when considering Florida had endured four land-falling storms in 2004, and we had seen the disaster wrought by hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi after brushing over South Florida in August 2005. Not to mention the fact that the media had provided excellent coverage of the monster storm that Wilma became in record time as it barreled from the central Caribbean toward the Yucatan peninsula in late October 2005. We had all seen or read about the damage Wilma caused in Cancun, Cozumel, the Maya Riviera and on the resort island of ‘Isla Mujeres’, just before it proceeded to turn in the direction of Florida. It is indeed puzzling to see how quickly we all forgot the hits received in 2004 and the graphic displays of damage and human suffering from Katrina, and from Wilma before it headed our way. Even more puzzling is to hear how many of us were surprised by the amount of damage hurricane Wilma left in South Florida.
We ignore the signals of Nature at our own risk. Today’s storm system moving over the Yucatan in our general direction may be considered weak or disorganized, but it is large and it will generate storms, and rain, and wind, and surge, and potentially tornadoes as well, and lightning, and flying debris as it comes over our communities. So the potential for damage and for disruption of our daily lives is there. A signal from Nature, a reminder nine years later that we are vulnerable. If there are doubts about this, consider Bermuda and just a couple of days ago they got hit by tropical cyclones FAY and GONZALO in the span of just five days, such a small target in the middle of the Atlantic!
Nine years. A long time. But we must remain vigilant at all times. We must be prepared and constantly engage in the practice of mitigation to protect our lives, and property, and our communities and way of life for the next time that will surely come one day.
Nine years, a long time, in which our coastal communities have become even more vulnerable because the increase in population and growth of our urban built environment have placed more people and more property at risk. We are also more vulnerable because the inexorable march of sea level rise has relentlessly increased the potential for damage from the impact of storm surge and breaking waves when that next time comes knocking.
Nine years are a blink of the eye in Mother Nature’s terms. Will it be nine days, nine weeks, next year, or another nine years before our turn comes again to interact with a hurricane? Will we be again surprised by the amount of damage and the power of Nature? Will we be prepared and ready? And, until then will we practice mitigation to ensure that we indeed are prepared and ready? No one can predict when the next one will hit us, but it is up to each and all of us to determine what kind of outcome we will have when that next one takes place!