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Developers and Hurricanes: a Lethal Combo for the Florida Keys

Live long enough, and reality surpasses whatever imagination one can bring to bear on the future.

Here is a fictional account of Hurricane X, which ought to generate 200,000 letters from the Florida Keys to the governor of Florida, Jeb Bush.

The letters should ask for the intervention of the state in current and proposed zoning changes and permitting of new development in Miami-Dade County that could make hurricane evacuation from the Florida Keys impossible.

Here we go …

Hurricane X has already devastated Haiti. Now, this killer storm is tracking toward western Cuba, a Category 3 storm curving like a bowling ball toward Florida.

At National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration headquarters, modelers predict the path of the storm will cross the Florida Straits and attack the Keys from below, from Key West straight to Key Largo and Miami-Dade county.

The latest data shows abnormally high water temperatures, something fishermen from the Florida Keys have been complaining about for weeks.

Hot water fuels intense hurricanes. Whether it is global warming is beside the point now. Forecasters predict Hurricane X will be a Category 5 storm with a devastating storm surge by landfall, less than two days from now.
Moreover, modelers cannot be certain about the forward speed of the storm.

Throughout the Keys, families pile into cars, cradling photo albums, a suitcase or two and not much else. There is not much talk. People have seen enough of intense hurricanes the past years to know what is coming.

For more than two decades, the state of Florida has tried to moderate development in the Keys, based on the time it takes to evacuate for a hurricane.

Developers contested the state’s data and provided model after model, showing that phased and orderly evacuation could allow more growth.

Now, hundreds of thousands of people are taking their cue from satellite images showing the storm’s gathering intensity.

At Marathon, on the north side of the Seven Mile Bridge, the progress of traffic stalls and grinds to a halt.

Emergency planners and the governor have prepositioned disaster relief at the South Dade emergency center, but now discomforting word filters back to Tallahassee: all roads leading out of South Dade are backed up.

U.S. 1, from Marathon, is solid traffic — all lanes northbound and SUVs piling on the soft shoulders have created an impassible logjam.

But even if traffic were moving out of the Keys, the Florida Turnpike, U.S. 1, and Krome Avenue, vehicles are stuck on the roadways like beads of sap on a pine tree.

Although growth in the Keys had been limited, in Miami-Dade county the state has allowed West Kendall and South Dade to be jammed with new cities without providing any new capacity for evacuation. More than 100,000 new residents, in just the past five years.

Production housing developers, land speculators, and farmers had all pressed county commissioners to allow the rapid conversion of open space into housing, with no planning for the effect of a mass evacuation from the Keys piling into an evacuation from South Dade: a rear-end collision.

It was all so predictable.

Emergency management officials in the Keys are now apoplectic. The storm is accelerating.

With less than 24 hours before landfall, hundreds of thousands of cars are stranded and running out of gas, a scene eerily similar to what happened in Texas with Hurricane Rita only a few years earlier.

But not 50 miles from the Gulf. Fifty feet. The Gulf is already rising. People are abandoning their vehicles on the Seven Mile Bridge and walking back toward Bahia Honda.

The governor of Florida realizes that quick decisions need to be made. He has the sinking feeling that he will have to take ownership for all the bad decisions made years ago.

Those decisions allowed zoning changes, water use and building permits for massive new developments in South Dade without any planning for the worst case evacuation scenario.

In Tallahassee, emergency managers face the governor around a conference table. “What do you want to do?” they ask the governor.

The governor says decisively, “Wherever they are, turn them around. Send them home.”

There is silence in the room. The governor knows he is sending people home to face a Category 5 hurricane and storm surge higher than many rooftops. “Have you forgotten,” one manager says, “all lanes of traffic are northbound.”

And that is how Hurricane X unfolds. One of the greatest disasters in U.S. history.

You will never want to roll up the windows of your car against a killer hurricane to ride out the storm, so it is time to roll up your shirtsleeves and write to Gov. Jeb Bush.

Ask the governor to stop any decisions that could lead to moving the Urban Development Boundary in Miami-Dade County, and to require new analysis of the carrying capacity of South Florida in the light of hurricane evacuation needs in a worst case scenario.

This is one message that leaves no one behind.

ALAN FARAGO lives in South Florida. He can reached at: afarago@bellsouth.net

More articles by:

Alan Farago is president of Friends of the Everglades and can be reached at afarago@bellsouth.net

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