Just three hurricanes packing the devastation of a Category 5 storm have made landfall in the U.S.
They live in legend, yet are all too real, captivating in their magnitude and begging the question no one wants answered — what if it happens again? What if it happens here?
In truth, emergency managers and hurricane experts are hesitant to broach the subject of a Category 5 scenario. Hypotheticals, they say, serve only to scare, and there are too many variables to guess at an aftermath — size, speed, angle of attack.
But with the first storm of the 2015 Atlantic hurricane season boiling up as if on a schedule — mid-August through October is the peak incubation period for hurricanes — attention is steered again to preparations and speculations.
“You can talk about the fact that it has happened, and you hope it never happens again,” said Erik Salna, associate director and meteorologist for the Extreme Events Institute at Florida International University about a Category 5 storm. “This is an El Niño season, so it’s expected to be slower, but Andrew hit during an El Niño season.”
Category 5 Hurricane Andrew was the first storm of the 1992 season, making landfall Aug. 24 — 23 years ago Monday.
Here’s some of what could be expected if there was a repeat in Palm Beach County:
— 250,000 coastal residents would be asked to evacuate.
— That evacuation could take 27 hours.
— Flooding and debris could leave neighborhoods isolated for days.
— 99,946 Palm Beach County homes with $24 billion in replacement value would be at risk from storm surge.
— Significant damage to FPL’s systems would cause widespread power outages, possibly for weeks.
— Cellular service would be interrupted indefinitely.
— Mobile homes would be obliterated.
— Seawalls would fail, sucking multimillion dollar properties into the Atlantic.
One worst-case scenario: If the Lake Okeechobee dike were breached, water would quickly flood people in Pahokee, Belle Glade and South Bay. They could be under 1 to 5 feet of water for several weeks. Within days of a breach, floodwater could cross sugar cane fields and reach the edge of Loxahatchee and Wellington.
“We don’t want to scare the heebie-jeebies out of people,” said Palm Beach County Emergency Manager Bill Johnson, whose neighborhood was on its own for five days after Hurricane Andrew when downed trees and power lines blocked first-responders from reaching it. “We were truly on our own.”
Johnson’s motto is “you can’t outrun a storm,” but you can evacuate to a safe place, and that place doesn’t have to be Orlando.
“Everyone thinks they’re going to be safe in Orlando. I don’t know why,” he said.
It all depends on landfall.
A sucker punch from the west could pit Palm Beach County against strong backside winds with speeds upward of 157 mph.
An upper cut to the Florida Keys that rips along the east coast like a weed whacker would devastate a main artery of population and money.
And a Category 5 haymaker to the gut of Broward County could send a storm surge ashore in Palm Beach County with a nearly 6-mile reach inland as inlets and estuaries swell.
In 2005, Palm Beach County had just two evacuation zones. Now there are five based on the category of hurricane and how much water it will push ashore. Wind damage is less of a concern than storm surge.
In a Category 1 storm, the only people in Palm Beach County who will be asked to evacuate are those who live in manufactured or mobile homes, or whose home has substandard construction and is in a flood-prone area.
If a Category 5 storm threatens, 250,000 coastal residents will be asked to evacuate. In Jupiter, that would include people living as far inland as Limestone Creek Road. In southern areas of Boca Raton, evacuations would reach as far west as I-95.
Palm Beach County’s shelters can hold about 50,000 people, and Johnson believes only about 15 percent of the 250,000 will go to a shelter.
While it’s hard to imagine the ocean rising up to overtake seawalls, flood into the Intracoastal Waterway and rush down Palmetto Park Road, that’s just what storm surge experts expect to happen if a Category 5 hurricane hits.
Consider Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Its strongest winds never came close to Palm Beach County, but it blew in powerful waves that breached Manalapan’s seawalls, pulled Lantana’s lifeguard station into the sea, sank a floating burger stand in the Intracoastal and undermined oceanfront pools.
A year later, Tropical Storm Isaac packed little punch, yet dumped as much as 18 inches of rain, leaving western communities under several feet of water for days.
“We used to be a nation infatuated with wind, and the evacuation process was based on the wind-only Saffir-Simpson scale,” said Jamie Rhome, a storm surge specialist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
The Saffir-Simpson scale says a Cat 5 storm with winds upwards of 157 mph would cause catastrophic damage to framed homes, total roof failures and wall collapses, uprooted trees, fallen power poles and areas that will be uninhabitable for weeks.
But Saffir-Simpson doesn’t include flooding, rain, tornadoes or storm surge.
“It’s so critical that people let go of these mental models and listen to local officials,” Rhome said.
Rhome said Palm Beach County has a sharp drop-off in its continental shelf, which means storm surge won’t flow as far inland as on the west coast of Florida, which has a gentle lead up to the beach.
But Palm Beach County will suffer from more severe waves that will violently pound at the coast.
“Buildings simply cannot withstand that kind of force,” Rhome said. “You will get complete and total failure of buildings. People will be swept away, which is why if an evacuation is ordered, people need to heed it.”
Between 1963 and 2012, 49 percent of deaths directly related to Atlantic hurricanes were because of storm surge, according to a 2014 study by Edward Rappaport, deputy director of the National Hurricane Center.
Wind was responsible for just 8 percent of deaths. About 3 percent of deaths were caused by a tornado.
That’s one reason why Palm Beach County doesn’t consider the age of neighborhoods when deciding who to evacuate. A 1926 wood and stucco house with hurricane mitigation may be as an appropriate place to hunker down as a residence made of concrete block.
Johnson said 80 percent of his home was destroyed in Andrew, but he came out unscathed.
“Everyone in Andrew thought they were going to die from the wind, but they didn’t,” said Salna, of FIU. “We have no idea how much loss of life there will be in a Category 5 and a lot of it depends on human behavior.”
A recent Mason-Dixon poll of 800 Floridians statewide found 62 percent would heed a mandatory evacuation if a storm was a Category 1. If a Category 3 storm threatened, 87 percent said they would evacuate if asked to do so.
Bill Orlove, a Florida Power & Light Co. spokesman, said the company has invested more than $2 billion in its infrastructure in the decade since Hurricane Wilma. The number of concrete poles versus wooden has increased 23 percent. Critical lines to facilities such as hospitals, grocery stores and gas stations have been strengthened.
Still, a Category 5 would cause significant damage to FPL and result in widespread outages.
“No utility, no matter the planning and preparations made, is hurricane-proof,” Orlove said.
One cringe-worthy scenario for South Florida is a Category 5 storm that enters through the southern tip of the peninsula and hugs the east coast through Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, said Shahid Hamid, director for the Insurance and Financial Economic Research Lab at FIU’s International Hurricane Research Center.
He estimates a storm like that would cause $150 billion in residential property damage.
“That’s what we would call the mother of all hurricanes,” Hamid said. “It’s extremely rare.”
But not out of the question.
Hamid and his wife huddled in a bathtub under a mattress through Hurricane Andrew and know first-hand the importance of having a hurricane kit at the ready.
“We were completely unprepared and it was terrible,” Hamid said. “When it was over, everything was blocked. You literally could not get out for a week. It was awful and I don’t want to go through it ever again.”