Christie: Thankful Hurricane Irma wasn’t worse, but we can’t dodge bullets forever

Police turn around traffic attempting to cross the bridge on Lake Avenue after the passing of hurricane Irma in Lake Worth. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

We, meaning Palm Beach County, “were damn lucky.”

Basically, that was the assessment in my editorial following Hurricane Irma last year. The massive storm looked like it was going to swallow the entire state as it approached us from the south after beating the snot out of Puerto Rico and Cuba in the Caribbean.

That’s not to say Irma didn’t leave a mark here, of course. Power and cellular service outages, tens of thousands of folks in shelters, tons of debris and hundreds of non-functioning traffic lights made life miserable for a lot of us for a while. Enough so, as the Post’s Kimberly Miller recounts today, that many residents still “believe they survived much worse during the September tempest, and aren’t keen to hear otherwise.”

RELATED: Hurricane Season 2018: Think you survived a Cat 4 here? Not even close

Well, we need to listen up and get real. Not to belittle anyone’s feeling of suffering, but we should be thankful we didn’t get Irma’s worst. Our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico can’t say that.

And as the 2018 Atlantic storm season kicks off today, we need to take whatever lessons learned from our Hurricane Irma “test run” and apply it to this year.

Because we can’t dodge bullets forever.

So following is my Sept. 13, 2017 editorial in full… Thanks for listening, and be prepared.

Editorial: Hurricane Irma spared Palm Beach County its worst

We were lucky, Palm Beach County.

Hurricane Irma, after taunting us for days with its record-breaking size and power, spared us its worst.

It may not seem that way to some. Not if you’re one of the roughly 300,000 residents still without power. Not if you’re one of the thousands of residents of Delray Beach and unincorporated county who still can’t flush their toilets. And not if you’re the parent of one of the School District’s 193,000 students who won’t return to school until Monday — at the earliest.

But we were.

You see, dozens of people here weren’t left dead in Irma’s wake as in the Caribbean. A quarter of our homes here weren’t made uninhabitable as they were in the Florida Keys. There was no 10- or 15-foot storm surge here as was seen in tiny Goodland on Marco Island.

A skateboarder takes advantage of a sidewalk damaged by uprooted trees along South Olive Avenue just north of Southern Boulevard in West Palm Beach after Hurricane Irma. The road was blocked in both directions. (Meghan McCarthy / The Palm Beach Post)

We are instead left with some trees down, spot flooding, long gas station lines and a chance to show some gratitude.

There are, of course, those who, ready to hurl the asinine “fake news” moniker, complaining that the media over-hyped the storm. Really? Yes, we should be skeptical of hype — especially from dubious sources. But when the National Weather Service says the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean is headed in your direction, the prudent thing is to shutter the house, grab the kids and get the hell out of the way.

No less than Gov. Rick Scott, himself no fan of the media, wasted no time in taking this monster of a storm seriously and pleading with us daily to do the same.

As The Post’s Kimberly Miller reported, “Mother Nature stepped in to tweak Irma’s plan” to deliver a worst-case scenario for our county.

“By the grace of Cuba’s northern coast, which was abraded by Irma before the strong Cat 4 hurricane reached the Florida Straits, and a tongue of dry air sucked into its massive, state-swallowing wind field, the storm weakened slightly and couldn’t regain strength before making its first landfall Sunday morning at Cudjoe Key,” Miller wrote.

And according to Jonathan Erdman, a senior digital meteorologist at Weather.com: “There are just so many little subtle things that can make all the difference. After it hit the Keys, it took a more due north path instead of north-northwest and that drove the eye wall ashore near Marco Island, which started weakening it.”

Weakened, but not inconsequential. In its wake, Irma left billions of dollars in damage and thousands of people across the Florida Peninsula who could use a hand — in shelters, in nursing homes, and yes, even next door.

Yes, the vast majority of us were damn lucky.

As good a time as any to show some gratitude, and volunteer to help those that weren’t.

Goodman: Hurricane Irma: For us, catastrophe averted. But still not much fun.

Downed trees at the beach at Delray Beach after Hurricane Irma, Sept. 11, 2017 (Palm Beach Post / Howard Goodman)

Ah, the sound of chainsaws in the morning.

Sure beats the whistle of high-speed winds all night.

We awoke this morning to a house that still had power. Which told us right away that 1) we were extraordinarily lucky, and 2) our Hurricane Irma experience was a lot less than we had braced ourselves for.

The difference was that westward shift, which we began hearing about on Saturday morning if my blur of a memory has it right. Instead of blasting her way up the east coast of Florida — which would have chewed up Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach — Irma didn’t turn north until she put Marco Island, Naples and Tampa Bay in her sights.

Instead of the direct hit we’d feared, we got pelted by outer bands of the hurricane. A lot of wind. A lot of rain. Now and then a tornado warning or an alert of high winds coming, possibly 80 or 90 mph.

It was a long weekend of staying in the house and watching TV as long as we could, thankful that WPTV-NewsChannel 5 weatherman Steve Weagle knows so much and explains so calmly.

We tried to block out the wind sounds. Scurried to our safe room — a bathroom outfitted with flashlights and snacks — when Weagle said destructive winds were heading just our way.

Amazingly, this was going on while the eye of this storm was around Naples — about 150 miles away. I’m still trying to absorb the immensity of this thing. To think that the same storm brought flooding to Miami, to Naples, to Jacksonville…

Our refuge was west of Boynton Beach, around the area of Lyons and Hypoluxo Roads. As we took a look around in our car this morning, it was obvious that Irma had treated us much better than Wilma or Jeanne. We saw downed limbs and drove through intersections missing stoplights — but there were far more trees that looked unhurt, many stoplights were working, and Publix, Winn Dixie and Walgreens stores were open and attracting customers.

We drove east to Federal Highway and then south through Boynton to downtown Delray Beach, and saw that Ellie’s 1950s Diner had lost part of her marquee. Here, power outages looked almost universal. There was a long line of cars queued up on Federal, south of Woolbright Road, but they weren’t waiting for gas. It was a McDonald’s, hot food and coffee being the important thing if you were emerging from a house that hadn’t had power for hours.

But very few roofs appeared damaged. It looked like we won’t be seeing blue tarps all over this part of the county, as we did for weeks after the 2004 and 2005 hurricanes.

Ellen and I checked our condo, which is in Hypoluxo, near the Intracoastal Waterway. We had abandoned it on Friday, spooked by the dire storm surge warnings, not sure when we’d be able to get back in. Somehow… it was perfectly fine. The building even had electricity; I couldn’t believe it. A neighbor said power had stayed on all through the storm, went out at 8 this morning, then returned around 10.

Another neighbor, who lives closer to the water, had ridden out the hurricane in his apartment to keep his eye on storm surge. He said the Intracoastal had seeped over the sea wall but gone no further.

The storm was flukey. A neighbor who lives in an opposite building had lost power early on Sunday, he thought. Or maybe Saturday. It was hard to sort everything out. At the construction site next door on our other side, there was evidence that a tornado had hit; some small, newly planted trees were lying on the ground in opposite directions from each other. Coulda been us.

We went to Ellen’s parents’ home, atop a tall condo building on Delray’s barrier island. Police were allowing only residents across the bridge, but Ellen had her father’s ID and the cop let us through. There was no electricity and, as throughout Delray, no one can use toilets or bath tubs; the city’s sewage pumping stations are without power.

Her parents, who are in their 90s and unable to take of themselves, are with their caregiver in central Florida. It’s a good thing we checked their place. The refrigerator and freezer were full of food, left behind during a frenzied evacuation. The food was starting to stink. We threw it all out.

More than 530,000 customers in Palm Beach County were lacking power at midday today — maybe 1 million people. That’s a lot of disruption. For those who aren’t reconnected for days, it will be miserable. Lots of folks in Palm Beach County are going to need help. We’ve all got to be good neighbors to each other.

Hurricane Irma: Stress leading to questions about who should be allowed in shelters

Lines form outside of Palm Beach Central high school as people wait for the storm shelter open for evacuees from Hurricane Irma in Wellington. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

Things are getting tense out there. Winds are picking up, rain bands are coming through and tornado warnings are buzzing our smartphones.

And being forced to sit in a closed-in space with hundreds of folks you don’t know is not exactly ideal.

As Palm Beach County emergency management officials quickly decided how many shelters they would need, and where to care for some 16,000 Hurricane Irma refugees, local residents were making a critical call of their own.

Should I stay and shelter-in-place, or should I go to one the 13 public shelters being opened and run by hurricane relief officials?

To be sure, it was a difficult question for many of the thousands that are now in the shelters. Just as it was deciding on whether to evacuate the area, despite not being in a mandatory evacuation zone.

But such decisions are bound to produce some ill feelings. The stress of the storm is already high, and clashes over bottled water and gas lines was inevitable.

RELATED LINK: Hurricane Irma: Updates from shelters around the county; some residents are leaving

Not surprisingly, some of that stress is also spilling over into the hurricane shelters, as well.

As one Post reader put it in an email late Saturday afternoon:

Selfish.

It is hard to believe people who live in a gated community, whose homes have concrete and stucco walls, take themselves to a shelter when they are not in a evacuation zone because they are afraid

Many people were afraid, and with good reason. They may have been living in a mobile home, unstable home or on the water. Afraid is not a reason, but safety is.A couple I am thinking of did this just recently. They not only live in a fortress{ concrete stucco home) but also have hurricane shutters and a generator. Meanwhile, people are outside the shelters, sleeping in their cars unable to get in.The staff checking people in should tell people like this, who do not live in a evaculation zone to go to their safe home and let those who need shelter have it.

Adrienne Finer-Cohen, Lake Worth, Fl

While that can sound a bit harsh, she is far from the only once who shares that feeling right now.

But what do you think?

Should folks who have well-built concrete homes that are not in a flood-prone evacuation zone be allowed to take up much-needed space in a hurricane shelter, just because they are afraid?

Let me know what you think in the Comments section.

Hurricane Irma: Waiting for ‘Irmageddon’

We’ve prepared for hurricanes before, but none of them felt like this.

With Frances, Jeanne and Wilma, we expected winds that shake the roof and flatten trees. Rain that pelts sideways. Those were punishing enough.

This time, the forecasts predict a something new: devastating storm surge. And for my wife and me, who have lived in South Florida since 2000, and enjoy the view of the Intracoastal Waterway from our condo, this is nothing to fool with.

A sign at Harry’s Banana Farm bar in Lake Worth.  (Bruce R. Bennett / The Palm Beach Post)

This mother of all storms looks to be giving a new meaning to “Mother” Nature. It looks as fierce as an Andrew, as huge as Katrina and roaring to swallow up the whole of the Florida peninsula and spit it out as a chewed-up ruin.

Irmageddon, my friend Jon calls it.

Today, Ellen and I have spent hours packing clothes, medicines, laptops, bottled water, flashlights and plenty of food to bring to the house of a friend  who lives 10 miles inland and who generously invited us in.  Our house, a short distance from the ocean, is in a voluntary evacuation zone, and we didn’t hesitate to take the hint.

Our first shelter of choice — the Palm Beach Post building, a fortress of an office building constructed post-Andrew to withstand a Category 3 — fell through when the parent corporation and its risk managers decided the whole place had to be vacated as of Saturday morning. So this hurricane, unlike any other, is driving the Post from its home. Reporters and editors will work remotely.

We’re far from the only ones who have had to readjust plans — or move to firmer shelter– because this storm exceeds all previous experience in its scope and potential for savagery.

Luckily, we had a friend ready to share her house.

As we scrambled this morning to leave our fifth-floor condo, it dawned on Ellen that we might not be back home as soon as the hurricane passes. This is that different a storm. The surge they’re talking about — would it flood our parking lot? The first floor apartments? Would it compromise our building? Make it unsafe to enter?

We recalled a friend in New Orleans who fled Hurricane Katrina with only a few things flung into the car’s back seat — and couldn’t get back into her house for three months.

That might be us. And so we packed with a pang of melancholy: this could be the last time we see our house until….when?

It’s a hot day, somewhat breezy. As we drove to our place of shelter, local traffic was thinner than normal, but the streets didn’t feel empty. For all the thousands who have fled, there are still a lot of people here in this metro area of 6 million.

Lots of buildings are boarded up. Lots of cars still lining up for gas at the few stations with supplies.

Ellen and I are settling as I write, in a shuttered-up suburban house west of Boynton Beach with friend Agneta, a cooler of beer, a rack of wine and a bottle of good whiskey.

The TV is on and we’re watching the interviews with public officials and storm refugees, the meteorologists’ breathless explanations of the maps.

Nothing to do now but wait.