Fabiola Santiago

Eyes are on Tropical Storm Dorian, but the freaky weather happened in Central Florida

Watching from the end of the Florida peninsula the National Hurricane Center’s “cone of uncertainty” for Tropical Storm Dorian aiming at us with some credibility, we tend to lose perspective.

The first threatening storm of the season is more than 1,000 miles away, but we feel like the bull’s-eye in a game of darts.

We’re already freaking out a little. Or maybe a lot if we’re honest. It looks like a washout for Labor Day weekend — and we had plans.

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I’m no exception.

I respect weather, now more than ever as an observer of the changing world, but South Florida generates a disproportionate amount of hurricane coverage and attention — and, accordingly, we’re slammed with the highest insurance rates in the state.

Yet, freaky weather, like climate change, is menacing all of Florida.

Monday afternoon and evening in Central Florida are a perfect example.

“Feels like Dorian is here now,” my daughter texted at 7:06 p.m. along with an ominous snapshot from a weather alert on her cell phone.

The entire screen was covered in tiny lightning bolts — and swaths of red and orange covered the entire region.

“Lightning detected 0 miles of you,” it said.

She was stuck in the car in a Walmart parking lot with her kids; her husband was on the road driving home from work. There were tense moments until all of them got home safely. And then, the power went out. The outage lasted two hours. They had to debut their newly purchased generator to keep the packed refrigerator operating and a cell phone charging.

But they were lucky.

Earlier in Ocala, lightning from the same storm struck a house and it caught on fire. That family was lucky, too, that no one was injured. It took firefighters almost two hours to control the blaze.

They were lucky, too.

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Here’s a cellphone snapshot of the freak weather alert many in Central Florida received Monday night. That’s a lot of lightning bolts. A house in Ocala was struck and caught on fire.

Living in paradise comes with its drawbacks — and the Mean Season is one of the most infamous.

It should be obvious after last season’s Hurricane Michael’s path through the Panhandle that it’s not, I repeat, an only-in-South Florida phenomena.

But we’re stuck with the bad reputation — and its cost.

All of North Florida, for example, is threatened by severe storms coming from the north and the west all year-round. But people still view hurricanes as unusual events and insurance rates reflect it. Homes aren’t built to South Florida hurricane codes. It’s like South Florida, pre-Andrew, and I think that’s scarier than living here.

The last time I drove to Jacksonville, I thought I was going to die crossing the Dames Point Bridge.

No amount of planning from Miami kept me from having to drive on the cable-stayed bridge over the St. Johns River just as a severe storm was passing through the area. I had been listening to weather coverage on the radio as I drove — and I thought it was still safe, as the bridge is normally closed when winds are too strong and driving on it is too dangerous.

It was open — and I drove on.

Big mistake.

Once on top, the winds batted my car so badly, I had to struggle to stay in control and in my lane.

The winds broke off the antenna and the black rubber strips on the roof came loose.

This was no hurricane, no tropical storm — only a “severe weather event” on a Good Friday.

I was lucky.

Earlier, as the same storm passed 200 miles west through Woodville, it killed an 8-year-old girl and injured her 12-year-old brother when a tree toppled onto the family’s house.

Bad weather seems the new normal in all of Paradise, not just our end.

There’s no underestimating the need for Floridians to prepare, plan — and keep the unproductive fear in perspective. We have resources, structure, and expertise. If we only remember that there are those in our community who don’t have enough to weather a storm — and we take care of them — we’re good to go.

As I’m writing Tuesday afternoon, heavy rains and gusty winds of a somewhat weakened Dorian are soaking the Leeward Islands — and threatening poor Puerto Rico, still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Maria. But the storm is no longer forecast to become a possibly devastating hurricane.

Poverty-stricken Haiti is in harm’s way, too.

How sad that, as poor as the region is — and as well off as we are in comparison to deal with hurricanes — Hispaniola’s mountains play the role of being our savior from the worst of hurricanes. Cuba’s mountains, too, shear, weaken, and even dissolve and displace storms headed our way.

Yes, we on the southern tip of Florida are in Dorian’s dreaded “cone of uncertainty.”

But take a good look: Models now show that farther up the state’s east coast looks more likely for the landfall.

The only likely scenario is that Labor Day is a wet one for us all.

Award-winning columnist Fabiola Santiago has been writing about all things Miami since 1980, when the Mariel boatlift became her first front-page story. A Cuban refugee child of the Freedom Flights, she’s also the author of essays, short fiction, and the novel “Reclaiming Paris.”
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