The first time I covered a hurricane, a scene stuck in my mind. We were driving through the already empty streets of a mandatory evacuation zone and passed in front of a humble house with metal roofs. They had boarded up windows and doors, 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 to the emergency services in case the worst happened.
An immense curiosity invaded me. Why had they locked themselves in there, with their children, if we had been reporting catastrophic messages from the Florida governor for days, alerts from the emergency services, and the flight of tens of thousands of residents?
From 2016 to now, I have covered several hurricanes in Florida and Texas as a journalist, and in all of them a key to evaluate their consequences is repeated: the messages of the authorities and the planning of the residents.
I also live in Miami Beach, considered one of the epicenters of the most tangible consequences of an increasingly hot climate and an increasingly extreme nature. Here we face hurricane warnings every year, but the ocean is also gaining ground on the island and the tides flood our streets more frequently. More than a dozen insurance companies have already abandoned Florida because of how expensive and risky this market seems to them.
With the start of hurricane season in May, the city sends residents a magazine so that we are prepared. It is time to store bottled water, portable batteries, battery-powered radio and insulated bags for important documents. On those days I addictively consume the forecast designed by the meteorological authority on the severity of the season that is beginning and I accumulate preserves and non-perishable products ―more gourmet every year―.
Information is the first tool against climate change. Subscribe to it.
Each state and each county have their own weather emergency plans in place. Because in America, where the stereotype says that everything is bigger and more exaggerated, its nature also seems rougher and wilder: every year we see huge fires in California, floods in Arizona, super blizzards 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 the storm are critical: if you don’t pay attention, that little hurricane logo drawn on a map in a remote part of the Atlantic has become a solemn televised message from the governor warning of “deadly dangers” in the corner of your house.
In that countdown, the hotels far from the coast hang the sold out (everything sold) in a matter of hours, the offices give free rein to employees to flee, the roads to the north are clogged with cars and plane tickets to New York reach astronomical prices.
These are key hours that strip this country of makeup and reveal that we live in a nation with endemic economic inequality, a national crisis of loneliness, and now also a gap between the informed and the uninformed.
In the previous hours, the harshness escalates for those who cannot or do not want to flee: the anguish is palpable in the search for wood and metals to protect the houses, in the empty shelves of the supermarkets, and in the few service stations where there is some gasoline left. Police cars surround them to control the aggressiveness of some customers. (I didn’t finish the French series The Collapse, so acclaimed a few years ago, because that pre-apocalyptic countdown reminded me too much of scenes before a hurricane.)
The messages to the mobile – like the one that was sent last Sunday in Spain by the dana, causing a notable stir – are growing as the cyclone approaches. Now or never messages. “The hurricane is approaching Florida, get ready.” “The 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 together with a high-pitched, penetrating sound that absorbs all your attention for a few seconds. It is the same sound with which they warn of a kidnapped minor or a police chase on the highway.
Hurricane Ian, which struck Florida’s west coast a year ago, became the deadliest to hit the state in nearly a century, killing at least 149 people. The hardest hit county, Lee, was the slowest to send mandatory evacuation orders. They were issued a day later than in the surrounding counties, wasting precious hours to flee. Several neighbors told me later that they never received alerts or understood the magnitude.
Sailboats carried through the air
A cyclone of monstrous force was approaching, tossing sailboats into the air, reducing four-story buildings to concrete stairs, and destroying the bridges connecting the area’s islands to the mainland.
“We had no idea of the magnitude of what was going to happen. I did not notice a notice from the authorities, ”Omar Enríquez, a Mexican immigrant, told me, surrounded by his partner and his three children. By the time I met them, the trunk of their car had become their only closet and they were sleeping on two inflatable mattresses in a borrowed dining room. His home was devastated.
The Enríquez family did not evacuate in time. In the middle of the storm, when their roof was lifting, they fled inland with the children by car. It is estimated that about 700 people experienced the hurricane there, within Fort Myers Beach, ground zero. When I entered the area with the rescuers, in coverage for Telemundo, I was intrigued why so many neighbors stayed. Some told me that they had not heard about the alerts and had not seen it on Facebook.
Many cited the networks – cared for by algorithms – as a source of information, and not local television or newspapers. For this reason, if they had worked well, the alerts from the authorities on mobile 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 was already open. The father greeted us with a number one dad t-shirt. He explained to us that they were not paying attention to the warnings and did not trust the authorities. They preferred to stay and take care of the only thing they had, the house.
You can follow CLIMATE AND ENVIRONMENT on Facebook and Twitteror sign up here to receive our weekly newsletter
Subscribe to continue reading
Read without limits
#climate #emergency #daily #anguish #palpable #search #wood #metals #protect #houses