Cumberland Advisors Guest Commentary – Hurricanes, Bob Bunting, CAC

Municipal bond ratings are affected by the preparedness of the issuers for severe weather, the impacts of climate change, and other factors that may affect credit ratings. Cumberland Advisors takes a keen interest in the micro and macro details surrounding municipalities and weather events.

Our colleague Bob Bunting, meteorologist, professor, and former executive at both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), is CEO of the Climate Adaptation Center (CAC) here in Sarasota, Florida. Bob has contributed several guest commentaries to Cumberland in recent years, including “It’s Hot and Getting Hotter – The Case for Adaptive Strategies for a Warming Planet” ( The story of climate change is still unfolding and we’re paying attention. -David

Guest Commentary – Hurricanes

by Bob Bunting

If you live along the Eastern Seaboard of North America or the Gulf Coast, or in the Caribbean or Central America, hurricanes have been on your mind these past few years, and with good reason! The last four years have been barnburners, and this year set an all-time record for tropical storms.

The average number of storms in a normal hurricane season is just 10. Starting in 2017, we have seen the number of storms grow year by year from 12 to 15, 18, and now 30 so far in 2020. Before we discuss why this unmistakable trend has emerged, let me spend a minute on how these amazing, fascinating, and sometimes terrifying storms naturally form.

Hurricanes start with the evaporation of warm seawater, which pumps water vapor into the lower atmosphere where the sea and the air meet. Nothing happens unless there is already a disturbance of some kind present. That could be any weather event where there is already some upward motion in the atmosphere. Typically, it’s a clump of thundershowers that provide the necessary convergence of winds to focus the rising air. As air rises to higher altitudes and cools, water vapor starts to condense into clouds and rain. That process releases heat that warms the surrounding air. As the air far above the sea rushes upward, even more warm, moist air spirals in along the sea–air interface to replace it. Sea-level air pressure at the center falls further and further, creating stronger and stronger rotating winds around the center. Here we go!

Thinking in 3 three dimensions now, as long as the bottom of this weather system remains anchored to the warm seawater and its top is not blown off center by shearing high-altitude winds, the system can strengthen and grow from a depression to a tropical storm and possibly a hurricane.

The process from disturbance to hurricane or major hurricane usually takes days, but things are changing! As the climate has warmed, worldwide temperatures have steadily increased since 1850, and almost all the years of the 21st century so far are among the top 20 warmest, so hurricanes now have warmer seas to feed energy into them. In 2017 I coined a term to describe what I believe is a step function in rapid hurricane development. I call it Explosive Development; NOAA uses that term Rapid Intensification, which means an increase in wind speed of 35 mph in a tropical storm or hurricane within a 24 hour period. But the term doesn’t quite capture the meaning in a way the public can relate to, so at the Climate Adaptation Center we call are using explosive development.

Just this year, nine storms have exhibited this explosive behavior, and some have set intensification records, including Laura, Eta, and Delta, all of which made US landfall. It’s been a record year for US direct hits by tropical storms. Twelve have struck the US, and the season is not over yet! Up until now, the highest number of storm hits in the US was nine in 1916.

Hurricanes by Bob Bunting & Climate Adaptation Center

The Weather Channel’s tally for rapid intensification is shown above.

Eta intensified from a tropical depression to 155-mph sustained winds in just 36 hours! Imagine if Eta had done that just off the coast of the US and then hit a major metro area. Eta took a terrible toll in Central America, with hundreds killed, fierce floods, and widespread damage to crops that could create humanitarian crises in the months ahead. Now Iota is forming and appears likely to take a path similar to Eta’s and create a second serious hit in the same place!

The trend toward more rapidly developing storms may be far from peaking. Researchers at MIT, led by colleague Dr. Kerry Emanuel, used a computer study that compared hurricanes generated from 1979 to 2005 and then, based on expected climate warming by 2100, ran another simulation. The frequency of storms rapidly intensifying near a coastline with an increase in wind intensity of 70 mph or more in a 24-hour period increased from one such storm in a hundred years to one every 5–10 years. That’s an increase of 10 to 20 times and further confirms my own predictions on this subject. Other scientists have done similar work, and while details differ, all studies lead to the same general conclusion. The risk of catastrophe is rising along populated coastlines of North America; risk management is becoming an ever more urgent activity; and that is what we need to get about doing!

Hurricanes are also displaying two other changes in characteristics that are adding to risk. The first is that they are slowing down because the Earth is warming faster at the poles than at the equator. As that happens, the temperature difference between pole and equator decreases, slowing the steering winds that move weather systems. Hurricanes are stalling more frequently. We saw that with Harvey in Texas, Florence in the Carolinas, Dorian over the Bahamas, and Eta over Central America and the Gulf of Mexico. In each case, not only did storm winds do more damage but also rainfall caused epic flooding. Harvey set a world record of over 60 inches, and Eta probably dumped a similar amount in Central America.

Hurricanes by Bob Bunting & Climate Adaptation Center

The track of Eta makes the point about slower movement.

The dots in the image above indicate movement in 12-hour periods, and colors show the intensity of the storm. Orange is Cat 4. Imagine the situation if Honduras were instead Houston, Tampa, Miami, NYC, or Boston and a tropical depression rapidly increased to a Cat 4 or Cat 5 storm just before coming ashore and then stalling.

If that scenario were not enough, also consider that these storms that rapidly intensify often have “pinhole eye” structures that are just 10 to 15 miles wide. Eta’s was 10 miles wide; Laura’s was 20 miles wide. These small eyes concentrate the wind; and when they come ashore, they are like large EF3 tornadoes. Hurricane Michael was also a rapid intensifier with CAT 5 force and a 10-mile-wide eye. It wiped out Mexico Beach in Florida just two years ago, doing $8 billion in damage in a relatively unpopulated area.

Hurricanes by Bob Bunting & Climate Adaptation Center

Hurricane Michael roars ashore as a Category 5, Oct 10, 2018

Damage to a major US city or cities could top $1 trillion if they were hit by a rapidly intensifying Cat 4 or Cat 5 storm. The stage could be set for a mass casualty event. Are we ready?

Still not convinced? From 1980 to 2000 there were a total of five Category 5 storms in the Atlantic basin. The basin includes the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and the Atlantic Ocean. Since 2000, there have been 14 Category 5 hurricanes; and should Hurricane Eta be reclassified as a Category 5, as I suspect it will when site surveys are complete, then the total will be 15.

The Climate Adaptation Center (CAC) chose Sarasota Florida for its initial location partly because of the area’s many climate-driven disruptions, from hurricanes to harmful algae blooms like toxic red tide and sea level rise. Climate warming is also having impacts on both human health and our natural environment.

Florida is growing by leaps and bounds and now has 22 million people, 7 million more than in 2000. Climate disruptions and the growing population are both happening at once, requiring world-class risk mitigation! The CAC provides science translated in a way that can lead toward much more effective risk management. Once we have established a successful model in Sarasota, we want to deliver a CAC that leverages effective climate adaptation in your area! To do that, we need to make the work in Sarasota a stunning success. That is what is about to happen!

Bringing our understanding of climate warming from the global level to the local level allows us to use great science to make probability-based climate forecasts similar to the weather forecasts you use every day.

Making those climate forecasts and backing them up with information and a curated science database will help decision makers in government, the private sector, and academia to speedily develop cost-effective and timely regional adaption and mitigation measures to blunt the worst impacts of climate disruptions. Not only can this strategic effort mitigate risk, it can simultaneously jump-start the Climate Economy TM. If we do this right, reacting to climate warming in a positive way will help build the economy and turn the threat into a wide range of opportunities.


While this article was in publication, the nonstop 2020 hurricane season delivered another all-time record event as Hurricane Iota crushed Central America with winds gusting to 200 mph.

Hurricanes by Bob Bunting & Climate Adaptation Center

Hurricane Iota at landfall in almost exact place as Hurricane Eta 13 days previously.


  • Latest Category 5 recorded in the Atlantic Basin
  • Second time in 13 days Central America hit, in the same location, by a Category 4 or Category 5 hurricane
  • First time a hurricane reached Category 5 in a storm named in the Greek Alphabet
  • No hurricane season has had more than 2 major hurricanes in October and November.  This year we have Delta, Epsilon, Eta and Iota.
  • The 15th Category 5 since 2000.

Given what we now know, please help us make the CAC successful.

While international solutions to the global climate problem evolve in the coming decades, we are focused first on the immediate need to address Florida’s present and future climate warming issues. Foremost among these are sea level rise, hazards to human health, red tide, changing hurricanes, and threats to the natural environment.

Once proven, this entrepreneurial business model will be used along with the CAC infrastructure to start CACs around the US and the world. Solutions happen on the local level.

Our mission is to build CAC into a focal point connecting the scientific community, the public sector and private enterprise to apply climate science to solving Florida’s unique challenges, while engaging Florida businesses in developing cost-effective adaptation strategies for Florida and jump-start the Climate Economy TM .

Broadly speaking, the Climate Economy TM refers to the relationships among actions that can strengthen economic performance and those that reduce the risks resulting from climate change. At global and national scales, considerable emphasis is placed on the concept of a low-carbon economy – shifts in energy consumption and production that limit greenhouse gas emissions, thus limiting future climate warming. Regional and local climate economies have a more immediate focus on adaptation and mitigation efforts.

By engaging the business community, together with the scientific community and the public sector, the first CAC creates a launch pad for new products and services for cost-effective solutions to Florida climate issues.

Help us make the climate threat into a climate opportunity!

Look at our CAC website and bookmark it so you can come back again and again.

Register and you will get updates from me.

Donate and I will kiss the ground!

With knowledge doubling at an ever faster rate, by 2100 we will know how to tune the climate. In the meantime, reducing risk and buying time for a wider solution is the only way to go. The bottom line is, climate disruptions are personal, and they are happening now.

I’ll leave you with a photo taken a few nights ago as Tropical Storm Eta hit Sarasota. Winds were only 52 mph, but over six inches of rain fell in just 24 hours, breaking a 100-year-old record for the date. People are saying they have never seen such tidal flooding on our protective barrier islands. A life was lost. Will insight be gained and opportunity seized?

Bob Bunting
CEO, Climate Adaptation Center (CAC)
A nonprofit federally tax-exempt corporation EIN-84-1889176

Tropical Storm Eta hits Sarasota November 2020 - Photo Sarasota PD

Tropical Storm Eta hits Sarasota, FL, flooding parts of downtown. Image: Sarasota PD
We thank Bob Bunting for allowing us to publish his above guest commentary titled, “Hurricanes”

Feel free to forward this message to anyone who might be interested. Thank you.

David R. Kotok
Chairman and Chief Investment Officer
Email | Bio

Original email went out via MailChimp: Check it out.

Cumberland Advisors Market Commentary – Hurricane Roxcy or Hurricane Bob?

“Biden’s proposals to increase taxes on the wealthy and corporations – not to mention a $2 trillion plan to fight climate change – would stand virtually no chance in a Mitch McConnell-led Republican Senate” (  Let’s devote Sunday to the climate.

Hurricane Roxcy or Hurricane Bob

Climate change is a big agenda item for Biden & Co. But a gridlocked government makes climate change and mitigation measures much harder to advance at the federal level. The issues are enormous and global. Oil, gas, coal, drilling, fracking, pipelines, nuclear power – the list goes on and on. Cumberland has been and continues to be overweight solar, wind, and water power. There has been some correction in those ETF prices, and we may use pullbacks to rebalance and/or add to those positions.

Meanwhile the drama of global warming and its effects ignores the political outcomes. No matter what, the planet is getting hotter; the hurricanes are getting stronger; the melting of ice is accelerating; sea levels are rising; and the air is getting more carbon-laden. So the politics represent just the shorter-term cycles of what we do or don’t do, though these cycles will drive the intensity of the changes and the outcomes and the costs we incur. Mother Nature doesn’t vote in our elections. Mother Nature proceeds on a path to the outcome of a trend that has been underway for a century and is accelerating.

We want to introduce the Climate Adaptation Center, which is now up and running and open for business. The CAC is headquartered in Sarasota. CEO and Chairman Bob Bunting is known to many of our readers. He is taking the CAC into full-blown operations and is focused on the adaptation to climate change effects in Florida. Florida has a $7 trillion coastline risk exposure to rising sea levels. Florida has red tide on the Gulf of Mexico side. Here is the CAC new website: We invite readers to take a few minutes to review it and to sign up for their email notices. We already have.

We will be doing an interview with Bob Bunting and also running a guest piece for our readers. We’ve asked Bob why hurricanes are intensifying and why we are seeing more and more weather records broken. His comments will be forthcoming.

Now, let’s segue to a snippet of history.

At Cumberland, we use hurricane data and climate change information as part of our evaluation of municipal credit. John Mousseau and I first did that many years ago when we had to plot hurricane path “cones of uncertainty” on maps by hand. Electronic information analysis has now replaced that process, and credit work now includes climate risk.

John and I recommend a marvelous book by Eric Jay Dolin called A Furious Sky: The Five-Hundred-Year History of America’s Hurricanes ( Readers will learn about the first recorded hurricane to impact American history. That storm altered the history of what is now Florida’s east coast back in the 1500s. The French colony near present-day Jacksonville was badly damaged by the storm, losing men, ships, and supplies. The Spanish colony, St. Augustine, fared better. An ensuing battle resulted in a French loss. That is how Florida’s Spanish history started, many decades before Plymouth Mass and Jamestown VA were founded.

One more note. Hurricanes have had nicknames for over a century. There is a storied history about how they were named. After World War 2, they came to be named for women, a practice that continued until the 1970s, when Roxcy Bolton, a Miami activist who was an early member of the National Organization for Women, pressured the National Weather Service to drop its gendered hurricane-naming system. She suggested that the storms be named instead for US senators, who, she said, “delight in having things named after them” ( Here’s a quote on Bolton from Dolin’s marvelous book (pp. 208–9):

“Two years later, Bolton gave priority to the cause of compelling the National Weather Service to stop. The obviously gendered and misogynistic way in which hurricanes were discussed in the press, on radio, and on television infuriated her. She was tired of reading and hearing media accounts in which female-named hurricanes were variously described as ‘witches,’ ‘capricious,’ ‘furious,’ ‘savage,’ ‘bad girls,’ ‘unladylike,’ ‘vicious,’ ‘erratic,’ ‘eccentric,’ ‘treacherous,’ a ‘lust,’ and ‘acting like a woman in labor,’ to name just a few of the aspersions.”

The National Weather Service and the World Meteorological Association finally ended the gendered practice in 1979, when it adopted the practice of alternating men’s and women’s names; and so the second hurricane that year was called Bob (

We recommend the book and will leave the rest of this extraordinary story to inquisitive readers.

Happy Sunday

David R. Kotok
Chairman of the Board & Chief Investment Officer
Email | Bio

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Guest Commentary by Bob Bunting – It’s Getting Hotter

Bob Bunting, a friend, meteorologist, and accomplished professor, has offered his insight on climate change via this guest commentary, It’s Hot and Getting Hotter – The Case for Adaptive Strategies for a Warming Planet. We appreciate his perspective and invite you to join the conversation.

David R. Kotok
Chairman and Chief Investment Officer
Email | Bio

It’s Hot and Getting Hotter – The Case for Adaptive Strategies for a Warming Planet

By Bob Bunting

As humanity contends with a hotter planet, more volatile weather, and higher sea levels, adaptive strategies offer a win-win approach for now and for the future. Where climate change is concerned, to fail to act is to plan to fail; but by proactively implementing adaptive strategies we can spur economic activity in the present, preserve property values and lifestyles, and help to ensure a viable future.

Bob Bunting

Back in the late 1970s and 1980s I was fortunate to be a scientist and executive at both NOAA and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, NCAR. During this period the signal on manmade climate warming emerged from the noise. The first global atmospheric climate model went into use at NCAR. The early runs with and without the impulse of greenhouse gases put into the atmosphere by humans produced stunning contrasts. Without human greenhouse gas inputs, the model forecast little change in global temperatures; but with the impulse from mankind, the climate forecast indicated a troublesome warming during the 21st century. From that time onward, people fractured into climate-warming advocates and deniers. Led by remarkable consensus among scientists worldwide, the climate-warming forecast has seeped into the collective consciousness.

The NY Times Magazine recently featured a comprehensive review of what happened in Washington during the climate-warming realization period prior to 2000. The article detailed how and why the opportunity to limit climate warming was missed. At the time, many perceived a dramatic rollback of the carbon footprint of humans as hurting the US and other developed economies while simultaneously allowing developing counties to continue dirty development with old carbon-producing technologies.

Realizing that this difficult tradeoff was unlikely to be adopted, NCAR leadership began promoting the adaptive idea that climate warming presented a great economic opportunity for a technology-rich America and other advanced Western countries. Imagine developing India and China, whose goal was to turn the lights on for a few billion people, receiving cleaner-burning power plants and other more efficient technology from the West, thereby leapfrogging past their existing and soon-to-be-built dirty, high-carbon/high-sulfur coal power plants. Given the present state of affairs in 2018, it is clear this adaptive message fell on deaf ears! We can’t undo the past, and significant global warming is already baked into our future, so where can we go from here? Our message of 40 years ago is still the most effective one I have heard. Climate warming is not a theory but an unfolding reality. We estimate that the global temperature has increased about 1.1°C, or about 2°F, since 1880; and sea level has risen approximately 10 inches.

It’s Hot and Getting Hotter Graphic-2_1 - Sea Level Rise
Humankind can best deal with the consequences of climate change in an adaptive way that limits losers while maximizing winners. The imperative of slowing down, ending, and/or mitigating greenhouse emissions has received all the headlines. Meanwhile, unfortunately, the adaptive message has been lost. In addition to curbing emissions, we need to prepare for climate change that is already in the process of happening. I hope to move your thought in the direction of adaptive strategies because these strategies put us on the critical path to lasting solutions. But before we move forward, we need to grasp where we are now in the climate-warming scenario.

In the face of the rises in both global temperature and sea level, we continue to debate what is causing the global changes we have observed. The troublesome truth is that anthropogenic climate change is underway, and limiting additional greenhouse gas inputs from CO2, nitrous oxide, methane, etc. is critical to limiting the magnitude of the warming over the next few centuries. Even if miraculously the world could stop carbon emissions today, the Earth would continue to warm, and sea levels continue to rise until at least 2060. By then our children and grandchildren will be as old or older than we are now! It is in the best interest of our generation and the next few generations to focus on adaptive measures that can mitigate many of the impacts that we see now and that will increase over time. Humans must learn to address longer-term threats posed by climate change and act to protect future generations.

Adaptive strategies are at least part of the answer. For those of us living along the coast, managing sea level rise, for example, could well preserve our way of life now and for the next 50 years and probably beyond. We can, for example, preserve the value of our real estate, limit insurance premiums, and enhance the enjoyment of our adult and/or senior years. These and other benefits make adaptation personal and align with human instincts of self-interest and preservation.

Think, too, about the economic opportunities for small and large businesses that provide the adaptive solutions we need. Using the coastline as a continuing example, coastal engineers will design shoreline protection against additional sea level rise; providers will make or deliver materials to selectively harden and soften the shoreline to manage the rise and buffer more frequent and dangerous storm surges; consultants will help government on local, regional, and national levels to bridge the gap between need and implementation. We know that 80% of the world’s 7.5 billion people live close to the shore, and in Florida alone $6T of real estate is on the beach!

Moving inland, agriculture is likely to be an area where adaptation will pay large returns as the climate warms. The grain belts are located in many interior regions of the major continents. The US grain belts in the Midwest and plains, for example, will probably endure more frequent droughts and changes in the prime growing season. Drought, if not countered by adaptive strategies, could result in lower average crop yields. Adaptive strategies could include adjustments of planting and harvesting dates, changes in crop varieties, planting drought-resistant plants, separating fields with windbreaks, intermingling plots for grazing with those for planting, and developing alternatives for crop insurance.

I could go on, because there are hundreds of adaptive strategies in many economic segments that would mitigate the worst impacts of likely climate changes while enhancing economic activity. This is why I predict that adaptive climate change mitigation will become one of the fastest-growing and most lucrative business categories of the 21st century. We ought to help business see this opportunity and catalyze it for everyone, and the sooner the better!

So what is holding us back? One thought is that scientists necessarily present a range of outcomes and not precise forecasts, given the many uncertainties of making long-range predictions. The result has been a range of outcomes from 2°C to 6°C in temperature rise and 8 inches to 6.6 ft. of sea level rise by 2100. Given this large range, the impact could be quite manageable (but still significant) at the low end of the range and catastrophic at the upper end.

If you take away only one thing from this missive, it should be this. By 2100 the most likely range of temperature rise is, in my opinion, an additional 1.2–1.5°C rise in temperature and about 10–14 inches of further sea level rise. In order to reach these numbers, the current rate of sea level rise will have to advance from about 1 inch every 10 years to double that rate over the next 50 years. While these numbers are not pleasant, they portend real-world impacts that can be managed if we stop arguing about whether climate change is natural or manmade and start acknowledging that either way, the climate is warming and sea level is rising now.

It isn’t productive to wait for a 100% consensus as to the reasons for climate change. In the limited sense, who cares why? We all need to care about and address the adverse impacts no matter who or what is responsible. We buy insurance all the time for outcomes that are far less certain than climate warming and sea level rise. This is the message I have carried to business leaders, local government officials, and national congressional leaders in my sphere of influence. You can help by doing the same!

Bashing the media is not my intention, but the media becomes part of the problem when they hawk worst-case and least-probable scenarios. Sensationalizing promotes fear and creates a “deer in the headlights” syndrome that results in inaction. Showing, for example, how NYC could be underwater in 50 years without also classifying such an occurrence as about a 1% probability event is not helpful. Headlines presenting the worst-case and lowest-probability scenarios are both devastating and depressing because they tend to delay implementation of adaptive strategies. When people feel they have no options because they are going to be underwater, they are more likely to flee rather than to adapt. While climate warming has a fat-tail risk that should not be ignored, that risk also shouldn’t be the driver of paralysis that it has become.

If, however, the most likely scenario is presented, i.e., one with, say, an 80% chance of happening, society would be encouraged to move forward and to maintain our assets and lifestyle by taking adaptive measures. It is vitally important that we switch gears now while we still have affordable and viable options. It isn’t too late!

A final piece of the puzzle is quite encouraging. Knowledge is advancing at such a rapid pace that 50 years from now we may well have ways to sequester carbon and reverse climate warming. In my short lifetime, I have witnessed an incredible and increasing rate of change in human knowledge and technological progress, as I am sure you have. The knowledge tsunami is accelerating and is a cause for great hope and an affirmation that it isn’t too late.

Buckminster Fuller introduced his knowledge-doubling curve in 1982, about the same time as climate warming became a worldwide concern. With the help of IBM, the curve was modified and is shown below.

It’s Hot and Getting Hotter Graphic-3_1 - IBM Knowledge
I don’t have the data to show exactly where we are on the knowledge curve today, but I think the overall point is well made. Adaptation to climate warming and sea level rise is not a hopeless activity. It is as necessary part of a wider solution that is sure to come as our knowledge grows exponentially. We can and must give humankind the chance to solve the climate crisis. We need to get to work now on doing just that by implementing adaptive strategies! Please bring this message forward, and I hope you will!

Bob Bunting is a scientist, entrepreneur, educator and the author of a financial newsletter at

Links to other websites or electronic media controlled or offered by Third-Parties (non-affiliates of Cumberland Advisors) are provided only as a reference and courtesy to our users. Cumberland Advisors has no control over such websites, does not recommend or endorse any opinions, ideas, products, information, or content of such sites, and makes no warranties as to the accuracy, completeness, reliability or suitability of their content. Cumberland Advisors hereby disclaims liability for any information, materials, products or services posted or offered at any of the Third-Party websites. The Third-Party may have a privacy and/or security policy different from that of Cumberland Advisors. Therefore, please refer to the specific privacy and security policies of the Third-Party when accessing their websites.

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Key West, Bob Bunting

Bob Bunting, CEO Climate Adaptation & Mitigation Center (CAC), 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.

Hurricane Irma - Florida Keys

UPDATE – September 10, 2018 – Bob Bunting reminds us that one year ago, Hurricane Irma terrified citizens of Florida as the largest evacuation in US history and moved 6M people before the storm struck with 140 mph wind gusts at Marco Island before traversing the center of Florida. Had the storm moved 50 miles west, a knockout blow to Florida’s West Coast would have changed life as we know it. Now on the first anniversary of Irma, there is another massive storm named Florence that could have a catastrophic impact on the Mid Atlantic states after a weak hurricane season in 2018. It just takes one!

UPDATE – February 22, 2018 – Bob spoke,  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.

Still worried but not afraid, he is bubbly and optimistic about his family’s future and displays solid determination despite many issues with business and rebuilding his home.  After two months, he still waits for FEMA and the insurance companies to get to his case. His children are in a new school and the family is comfortable, thanks in part to a gift from the Guides Trust Foundation. I am struck by his clarity, resolve, and gratitude in what is a nightmare situation. His children are not afraid of hurricanes but wonder when the next one will hit. John says he has experienced three hurricanes in the past 18 years or so.

He says there is only one thing he hopes will not go back to its pre-storm condition, and that is the connection he now has with his coworkers in the guide business, not just on the Keys but all over.  I realize that John has gained something special from the disaster that took away his home, damaged his livelihood, upset his kids’ schooling, etc. Watching him, I wonder why society is so averse to experiencing setbacks that provide such meaningful learning and growth.

Hurricanes are ever-fascinating, so magnificent in organization, scope, and awesome power – but so scary when they are headed toward you! To see the gradient of damage from downtown Key West to Big Pine Key was amazing, even to someone who has flown into hurricanes. Destruction was contained in Key West but almost beyond belief in Big Pine Key just 29 miles away, where a 10-foot storm surge and 130 mph winds created an unearthly scene. As an atmospheric scientist who is one because of a hurricane long past, I am certain I followed the right path.

The piles of debris are memorable. The fact that we humans lead lives that are defined in part by artificial “needs” and the consumption a lot of stuff hit me. I am told that 1.2 million cubic feet of debris has been removed from the area north of Key West, and it looks like millions more are still waiting for removal. It will take time.

It is remarkable how well the infrastructure did in the face of the storm, even on Big Pine Key, confirming that hurricane-prone areas need to be built using methods and materials that ready them for storms. A few weeks after Irma, Maria hit Puerto Rico. The impacts were similar, but the outcome was different.

Clearly, investments in infrastructure in the Keys have provided a strong backbone, but Puerto Rico lacked that advantage. My takeaway is that governments can function well at strategic levels if the people running them are capable, honest, and motivated to protect. After all, this is the #1 function of government.

As we took off in the Twin Air for our trip back to Sarasota, I looked back at the runways and a view of the beautiful Keys just before sunset. I am ever more clear as to how what happened on Big Pine Key could have happened on Longboat Key/Sarasota, where the forecast was for a Cat 5 hit with a 10-foot storm surge. A very small change in path happened as Irma moved over Big Pine Key – that jog to the north drove Irma inland east of Longboat/Sarasota by about 30 miles… the same distance that separates Key West from Big Pine Key! So grateful!

In closing, I am surprised at how much this trip inspired me. First we saw devastation, then we observed that the initial government-led recovery, followed by a complex web of nongovernmental help backed by individual and organizational philanthropy and victim self-help, seems to be working – more proof, in my opinion, that we can do anything we want once we decide what we want to do. What a Good News story!

Bob Bunting
CEO, Waterstone Strategies

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