The first time I covered a hurricane, one scene stuck with me. We were driving through the now empty streets of a mandatory evacuation zone and passed a humble metal-roofed house. Windows and doors had been boarded up, and on the wood, they had written in black paint: “4 adults, 2 children.” On the other side of the wall, a family had been abandoned to their fate and, aware of this, they had left a message for the emergency services in case the worst happened.
I was overcome with immense curiosity: why had they locked themselves in there, with children, when we had been reporting for days on the catastrophic messages issued by the governor of Florida, alerts from emergency services, and as tens of thousands of residents were fleeing?
Since 2016, I have covered several hurricanes in Florida and Texas, and in every one there has been one key in evaluating their consequences: the messages delivered by the authorities and the planning of residents.
I also live in Miami Beach, considered one of the epicenters of the most tangible consequences of an increasingly warming climate and the increasing extremities of nature. Here, we face hurricane warnings every year, but the ocean is also gaining ground on the island and tides are flooding our streets with greater frequency. Over a dozen insurance companies have already departed Florida because of how expensive and risky they consider this market.
When hurricane season starts in May, the city sends residents a magazine so that we can be prepared. It is a time to stock up on bottled water, portable batteries, battery-powered radio and insulated bags for important documents. During that period, I addictively watch the forecasts produced by the meteorological authority on the severity of the season to come while accumulating canned goods and non-perishable products that are becoming increasingly gourmet every year.
Every state and every county has its own weather emergency plans in place because in the United States, where the stereotype says that everything is bigger and more exaggerated, nature also seems rougher and wilder: every year we are witnessing huge fires in California, floods in Arizona, polar vortexes in the northeast, tornadoes in the south, tsunami warnings in the Pacific and, yes, hurricanes in Florida, which feed the hackneyed extreme weather sections on national and international television.
The last three days before a storm are critical: if you’re not paying attention, that little logo of a hurricane drawn on a map at a remote spot in the Atlantic has turned into a solemn televised message from the governor warning of “deadly dangers” around the corner from your home.
During that countdown, hotels far from the coast are sold out in a matter of hours, offices give employees a free hand to flee, roads to the north are clogged with cars, and airline tickets to New York reach astronomical prices.
These are key hours that strip away the makeup of the United States and reveal that we live in a nation with endemic economic inequality, a national crisis of loneliness and, now, a gap between the informed and the uninformed.
In the hours before the storm hits, the rawness escalates for those who cannot or will not run: the anxiety is palpable in the search for wood and metal to protect homes, in the empty shelves of supermarkets, and in the few gas stations where there is any fuel left. (I did not finish watching the acclaimed French series The Collapse because the pre-apocalyptic countdown portrayed reminded me too much of the scenes before a hurricane).
Cell phone messages become more frequent as the cyclone approaches: now-or-never messages. “Hurricane is approaching Florida, get ready.” “Hurricane is approaching: seek shelter now.” “Emergency alert: Hurricane warning in this area, check with local media and authorities.” That last message, sent indiscriminately to any mobile device in the area, arrives along with a high-pitched, piercing sound, which sucks all your attention for a few seconds; it’s the same sound that alerts you to a kidnapped child or a police chase on the freeway.
The toll of Hurricane Ian
Hurricane Ian, which struck Florida’s west coast a year ago, became the deadliest hurricane to hit the state in nearly a century, killing at least 149 people. The hardest-hit county, Lee, took the longest to send out mandatory evacuation orders. They were issued a day later than in surrounding counties, wasting precious hours. Several residents told me later that they had never received alerts, or understood the magnitude of what was approaching.
A storm of monstrous force was approaching, sweeping sailboats through the air, reducing four-story buildings to concrete staircases, and destroying bridges connecting islands to the mainland.
“We had no idea of the magnitude of what was going to happen. I didn’t notice a warning from the authorities,” Omar Enríquez, a Mexican immigrant, told me, surrounded by his partner and three children. When I met them, the trunk of their car had become their closet and they slept on two inflatable mattresses in a borrowed dining room. Their home was devastated.
The Enríquez family did not evacuate in time. In the middle of the storm, as their roof was being raised, they took the car and fled inland. An estimated 700 people sat out the hurricane there, at Fort Myers Beach, ground zero. When I went to the area with rescuers, covering the storm for Telemundo, I was intrigued as to why so many people had stayed. Some told me they hadn’t heard the alerts and hadn’t seen it on Facebook.
Many were citing social media — curated by algorithms — as a source of information, not local television stations or newspapers. As such, if they had worked as planned, the authorities’ alerts on cell phones were the most transversal, universal and democratic tool, in the absence of the old ritual of watching the news.
In 2016, the day after the hurricane, we returned to the boarded-up house. It was surrounded by broken trees and the door stood open. The father greeted us wearing a “number one dad” t-shirt. He explained that they did not listen to the warnings and did not trust the authorities. They preferred to stay behind and take care of the only thing they had: their home.
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