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Hurricane shutters

When I was a kid all the Miami old-timers had shutters. They had learned their lessons well, thanks to a series of devastating hurricanes that plagued South Florida.

A 1926 hurricane virtually destroyed Miami and brought on the Depression — three years before the stock market crash.  The 1928 hurricane crossed over the state, spilling water from Lake Okeechobee, destroying small towns, and drowning more than 2,500 souls. In 1935, the most powerful hurricane ever to hit the United States blasted the Central Florida Keys with 200 mph winds, killing more than 850 people. Some drowned, some were sandblasted to death. In the late 1940s, a couple of smaller storms flooded southern parts of my state, prompting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build canals to drain the Everglades.

My parents moved to Miami in 1951. My dad immediately built wooden shutters, on the advice of older neighbors. Many of our better-off neighbors had hurricane awnings (see photo) they could easily swing down when storms approached. We couldn’t afford them — homemade had to make do.

But you know what? The bungalow my parents bought is still standing. So is a second, sturdier home we lived in when I was a Miami Shores teen. Thanks to shutters, we kept out the winds from hurricanes named Donna, Cleo and Betsy. The first house I bought in 1974, and lived in until I moved to St. Pete in 1977, wasn’t as fortunate. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew’s Cat 5 winds broke the windows and lifted off the roof.  I’m guessing the owner wished he’d sprung for shutters the moment he suddenly saw the open sky.

I live in a West Florida townhouse now. I bought shutters in 2005, after four powerful hurricanes crossed our state, barely missing St. Petersburg. At least once a summer since — and sometimes several times a summer and sometimes in the fall — I dutifully put up those shutters when storms threaten.

For years, I have been a curiosity among neighbors who lack hurricane experience. Why am I going through such trouble? Wow, those hurricane shutters must have been expensive! Why did you waste your money? That’s what insurance is for, chuckle chuckle.

Everything changed this summer. Hurricane Harvey’s destruction of Houston got everybody’s attention. A few weeks ago, Hurricane Irma leveled the Keys, ripped up the east coast,  and scared everybody to death. My Tampa Bay area never got more than tropical force winds — but, oh, the damage. Trees by the thousands were torn out of the ground, with some punching holes through windows and roofs on their way down. In Pinellas County, 80 percent of us lost power, some for more than a week. All from 50 mph winds. Just a run-of-the-mill tropical storm.

I’ve had most of my shutters up since August. They’ll stay up until hurricane season wanes. And you know what? I’m no longer the neighborhood goof ball. Neighbors ask me every day about my shutters. What are the options? How much do they cost? Can I put them up by myself? A stranger stopped by the house just an hour ago to ask advice.

I ain’t Florida Boy Trash no more!

Seriously, it’s important to keep the wind out of your home. That means protecting doors and windows and fortifying your garage doors. If you can afford ’em, buy shutters. If you can’t, use plywood. That was good enough for my dad and has been good enough for millions of Floridians over the decades. Build them now. Don’t wait until the day before the hurricane hits.

Yes, you may have insurance. But if the wind gets into your house and takes your roof — and the roofs of thousands of others — good luck finding someone to fix it. It can take six months or a year.

I now return you to regularly scheduled Weather Channel programming. Looks like a storm called Nate will be a hurricane by the time it reaches the Northern Gulf on Sunday.

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