Bob Bunting, a friend and accomplished professor whose expertise includes hurricanes, joined our small, fact-finding group on a trip to Key West and five other Keys that were hit by Hurricane Irma. Here is his narrative of the trip, which he has agreed to share with our readers. We thank Bob for joining us and reflecting on his findings.
UPDATE – Bob spoke Thursday, February 22, 2018 at “Cuba and the Caribbean: What Now?” The full event ran from 8:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. and Bob participated in a presentation moderated by WWSB’s Chief Meteorologist Bob Harrigan. Focus was severe weather and it was held at the Selby Auditorium at USF Sarasota-Manatee.
A video of the day’s talks is available here: Cuba and the Caribbean: What Now?
On Monday, it was my privilege to accompany David Kotok, a small group of thought leaders and the press to Key West in the wake of Hurricane Irma. David, an avid fisherman, was concerned about the recovery of a small but important group of people who are professional fishing guides. As an atmospheric scientist and a former senior manager not only at NOAA but also at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, I was intrigued. Much of my life has revolved around studying, researching, and predicting severe weather events, especially hurricanes. When I was five, Hurricane Carol struck and damaged my childhood home, scaring my family. That was the moment I knew I wanted to be an atmospheric scientist. As life evolved, other interests have entered, but all have leveraged patterns and predictions as the baseline.
My takeaways from this personally impactful visit to Key West and the lower Florida Keys are far-ranging, and David asked that I share them with you.
With Hurricane Irma leading a record September for hurricanes in the Atlantic, the media was “all hurricanes, all the time.” But how quickly we forget disasters as the news cycle becomes shorter and shorter in the age of social networking, tweets, and 30-second sound bytes. The communications revolution seems to have reduced people’s ability to focus, and as a consequence very little is ever reported about the aftermath of serious disasters like Irma and Maria. That is too bad, in my view. Our visit was rich and impactful and much more interesting and educational than what we are exposed to in the daily blur. How I long for in-depth reporting.
Expectations of the government’s role in disasters have certainly changed over time. Government was created to protect life and property as its first and most important mission. It is not the government’s job to repair all the damage and rebuild once the initial disaster recovery phase is over. This is what I was told when I was forecasting severe weather events for NOAA.
The expectation of a bigger, more costly government role is hurting actual recovery processes. The real recovery structure starts with government, but the handoff after the initial phases is to a complex network of organizations, helpful volunteers, and storm victims, each with different strengths, weaknesses, and time frames.
Upon our arrival at the still lightly damaged Key West International Airport, our host Doug, a leader of professional fishing guides, began an all-day tour. He masterfully guided us as we observed how the hurricane and its aftermath had impacted the venerable and important economic subgroup of professional fishing guides.
Our first stop is a great-looking fishing retail store in downtown Key West. The owner laments that he is waiting for customers who are not coming because their impression is that there has been great damage to Key West. Key West, 30 miles southwest of where Irma’s eye made US landfall, did sustain damage, but most repairs are complete and the town is open for business.
Next we see Doug’s house, further north and closer to ground zero where Cat 4 Hurricane Irma roared ashore. As we pull up to his home heavy damage is evident, and the sights and sounds of workmen rebuilding create a memorable scene. Doug says he is experiencing a “too long” lull in business and explains with a half simile that he is “self-insured.” Sadly, while the hurricane was bad, the lingering perception created by media hurricane coverage continues to amplify the negative economic impact some two months after landfall. The fish, not knowing any of this, are reported to be biting strongly. Too bad the fishermen are not enjoying themselves here on this nearly perfect day!
Now it’s on to Big Pine Key – ground zero – some 12 miles further north. It’s two months since landfall and we see massive damage, piles of debris, boats strewn along the roadways, one painted with “Do Not Remove.” Then more visuals, including, wrecked cars, every conceivable household item, piles of broken mangroves, and mangled street signs, one reading “Do Not Dump: $500 Fine,” next to a field of small American Flags. Goosebumps!
This is where John, a guide with a wife and two young children, once lived. John did not want to join us in his ruined neighborhood where we met the Millennial philanthropists. He and his family are in temporary housing supported by cash philanthropy of the Guides Trust Foundation. But meet him we would at the end of this memorable day!
Money plays a critical role in recovery, but actual human assistance should not be underrated. On Big Pine Key we fortuitously crossed paths with a group of Millennials that were highly motivated to help. Going house to house, helping folks in need and sleeping in a nearby church, these young people were having a wonderful time with one another while doing great service. What a human interest story and one that has been totally missed by the media, which has long departed. BTW, this Y generation is often talked about as being both entitled and spoiled.
While I can attest to those attributes after having taught about a thousand of these young adults in my entrepreneurship classes at the University of Colorado Leeds School of Business, it is also fair to say that they are focused on helping the world be a better place. They should get credit for that! The cadre of young adults on Big Pine Key are building self-esteem and perfecting the ability to communicate socially without devices. This experience will serve them well in a 30-second-soundbite and multi-megabyte world!
All of this is “good news,” and we need to focus on more on it. The media outlet news cycle seems to recognize only political controversy and deviant behavior, while real news stories like this one are not of interest. Having met thousands of people, my guess is that 95% of them are caring, helpful, and good-to-great human beings. Such is the case in Key West, where people have pulled together in the face of great adversity and have become closer, more optimistic, and grateful!
I have questions running though my mind. Isn’t it ironic that gratitude sprouts when times are tough? What ever happened to in-depth reporting? Is it a victim of rapid communication and our multitasking society? Is the communications revolution really increasing communication or making us more remote because human interaction is not needed and perhaps not wanted? I continue to ponder.
After lunch at the No Name Cafe we stop at National Key Deer Refuge. The park ranger assures us that the wildlife and biota are all recovering nicely but says they had to truck in water for the deer because after the storm the water was too salty. Interesting!
As we head back toward Key West, iguanas are darting across the road. They somehow found their way to the lower Keys and seem to be flourishing on the hibiscus. We pull into a small waterway, where John, the guide without a home, boats in and begins talking with us.