Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Hurricane angst in the digital age

James Franklin, chief hurricane forecaster, looks at an image of Tropical Storm Erika as it moves westward towards islands in the eastern Caribbean, at the National Hurricane Center, Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015, in Miami.
James Franklin, chief hurricane forecaster, looks at an image of Tropical Storm Erika as it moves westward towards islands in the eastern Caribbean, at the National Hurricane Center, Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015, in Miami. AP

Where the hell is El Niño when you need him?

El Niño, who was supposed to fend off these damn hurricanes this season, has abandoned me — all right, all right, not just me — to languish within the dreaded Cone of Doom.

So here I am, sputtering at the computer screen like a mad man, cursing a forecast track that propels Erika across the Leeward Islands to my very vicinity, as if the damn thing was hooked up to a GPS homing device.

OK. I admit it. This isn’t healthy. My mind has clearly been damaged from an overload of storm tracking technology. But I’ve been stalking this Erika since she was no more than a tropical wave rolling off the Sahara desert, chasing after a no-account blowhard named Danny.

But I can’t not pay attention. Not with two weather apps and a hurricane tracker app on both my iPhone and iPad that ping when something’s stirring out there in the Atlantic. Moments after waking up this week, I reach for my cellphone to stare squinty-eyed at the screen to see what awful prophecies the storm trackers have conjured up that morning.

Then, all day long on my desktop computer, hurricane updates flash through Facebook and Twitter, which get shared and retweeted and amplified on the Internet, building up into a kind of social media crescendo. Never mind that almost all of this stuff is just a variation of the periodic updates coming out of the National Hurricane Center. It’s inescapable. It’s hypnotic.

It doesn’t help one’s state of mind that Erika’s making an appearance just as we media folks are cranking out 10th anniversary stories on hurricanes Katrina and Wilma, reminding South Floridians that low-rent Category 1 or 2 storms can inflict a lot of misery on a region.

We learned a lesson hereabouts that even piddling hurricanes can stop commerce, knock out electric power and cable television, rip away roofs, destroy sheds, block roads, smash cars and send people scrounging for water, ice and food like Third World refugees. For months afterward, an aerial view of South Florida was like looking down at a sea of blue plastic tarps.

I had spent the entire sultry summer of 2005 mesmerized by computer weather graphics. Storm watching that year was like a hyperactive video game, with so many tropical storms rumbling out of the Atlantic waters that the National Hurricane Center, after running through the English alphabet, was forced to use five letters of the Greek alphabet. Storm paranoia became ingrained in the South Floridian psyche in a season with 15 hurricanes — seven of them major — and four Category 5 storms.

The only relief that summer and fall from the grip of digital weather maps were those days — I counted 24 in my neighborhood — without electricity to fire up the computer screen. You can’t worry about what you can’t see.

I sort of miss the ignorance. The old days back when we weren’t all privy to worrisome tropical waves drifting over the Cape Verde islands. When there wasn’t a Weather Channel to worry us about storms with maybe a 1 or 2 or 3 percent chance of making landfall in the U.S. Early on in my career, when forecast tracks were not so accurate, the Herald wasted a lot of money sending us reporters off to exotic seaside places to report on hurricanes that often never arrived — leaving us with nothing to do but indulge in rum drinks and other local offerings.

Modern technology has taken a lot of the fun, and most of the rum, out of storm chasing.

Of course, as a homeowner, I now regard the forecast track with a heightened sense of dread I wouldn’t have suffered back when my most valuable possession was a $500 very used VW. That worry is exacerbated nowadays by constant updates from the National Hurricane Center, the Weather Channel, Weather Underground and the Hurricane Tracker and all the tweets and Facebook postings that are dutifully interspersed with incessant preparation warnings. Get on down to Home Depot and Publix for food and batteries and plywood and water while there’s still time.

Which I would do. I would. I would. If I could just stop watching.