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.

Trying to Reason With Hurricane Season

Scan: Ektachrome 100 max 6966×5407

As a Florida boy, I have experienced my share of hurricanes — or what the old-timers in my hometown of Miam-Muh called “Hurry-Cans.” First one I remember in detail was 1960’s Cat 4 Donna, which cut across the Keys and the Everglades and into the Gulf before curving back into the Atlantic. It was big and powerful enough to damage thousands of roofs, uproot trees and flood low-lying Miami Beach. Hurricane Cleo, in 1964, was a less potent Cat 2, but it scored a direct Miami hit. I still remember the spooky lull as the eye passed over. Hurricane Betsy, the following year, was a much stronger and scarier Cat 3 when it roared across South Florida. At 15, I was smart enough to be scared by the howling wind, creaking roof and bent-over palms outside the one unshuttered window. You didn’t have to be a physics wiz to imagine a 20-pound frond blasting through the glass.

Hurricane Andrew? What can I say? I’m glad I lived in St. Pete. However, I visited South Florida for a story a few weeks later and witnessed the unspeakable damage. Houses flattened, including the one I had previously owned. Vehicles upturned and sand blasted. My botanist friend Roger Hammer drove me through Homestead and pointed to a two-by-four that had rocketed through the upper trunk of a royal palm like an arrow.

Now we’re all reeling from news accounts of the tragedy in Houston. And we’re beginning notice  a new one, Hurricane Irma, in the distant Atlantic. By the time you read this, it might be a Cat 4 storm, a catastrophe should it hit land. Some models have the storm eventually curving to the northeast out to sea. Let’s hope. But another has it reaching the Caribbean Sea and its hurricane-friendly warm waters.

Everyone who lives on the Florida coast should pay attention.

If you live on the water, I don’t know what to tell you. A Cat 4 or a Cat 5 is going to flood your house. Your ten-foot seawall won’t do much good. Evacuate sooner than later when the time comes.

I have shutters. I bought mine and I can install them in a matter of hours. They’re expensive. If you are young, strong and handy, go to a box store as soon as possible and buy lumber. Build your own. They will work.

Whenever I put up my shutters, I can usually count on at least one humorous neighbor (who has never experienced a hurricane) to give me the tsk tsk along with the accompanying  “That’s why I have insurance.’’ Insurance is good. I have it too. But if your house is damaged and uninhabitable— if thousands of houses are damaged — good luck finding a carpenter.

It’s critical to keep the wind out of your house. If gets in, it will likely take your roof. Protect your doors and your windows. And make sure you fortify your garage doors. I spent six months a few years back reporting the University of Florida’s “wind engineering” program. (Go to Amazon and download it as a Kindle or buy the little paperback for $5.95.) During my research, I watched a video taken in UF’s Cat 5 wind tunnel. A poorly designed garage door lasted about three seconds in the big wind.

Finally, everyone should have a box or two of hurricane supplies. That means water, batteries, canned food and — of course — coffee. And yes, make sure you have an old-fashioned pot you can make it in.

Buy the Book!

My new book, Alligators in B-Flat: Improbable Tales from the Files of Real Florida is now available in Hardcover, Paperback and Kindle

Readers will join Klinkenberg as he roams through the twisted roots of past and present, describing a beautifully swampy place that is becoming increasingly endangered. The traditional ways of the scallop shuckers, moss weavers, and cane grinders in his stories are now threatened by corporate greed, environmental degradation, and mass construction. From fishing camps and country stores to museums and libraries, Klinkenberg is forever unearthing the magic that makes Florida a place worth celebrating. Join him in contemplating Florida, both old and new, a place that is as quirky and enigmatic as it is burgeoning.