Readers: You’ve heard many times not to pooh-pooh a hurricane’s scrawny sister, the tropical storm. If you were in Palm Beach County or the Treasure Coast five years ago this week, you learned the hard way.
While not as devastating as its 2004 to 2005 predecessors, hurricanes Frances, Jeanne and Wilma, 2008’s Fay brought the two surprises carried by many a tropical storm: heavy rains and tornadoes.
Floridians shouldn’t have been caught completely off guard; rains from Fay already had been blamed for at least 14 deaths in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. It came ashore Aug. 19 and moved across Florida’s southern peninsula.
About a half-dozen tornadoes were reported, half of them in Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie counties. One damaged homes in Wellington and the Palm Beach Equine Center, where winds picked up a three-stall wood-frame barn and launched it across a courtyard.
Spots in the Treasure Coast recorded up to a foot of rain. Water was waist-deep on stretches of U.S. 1. Half of all roads in St. Lucie County were temporarily impassible because of flooding and heavy rain.
Lake Okeechobee’s water level leaped more than 2 feet. It would rise from 9.3 feet above sea level in mid-June to more than 15 feet by mid-September.
Damage was $70-million-plus just in St. Lucie County, where nearly 1,000 homes were flooded. About $20 million in damage was to agriculture alone.
In Palm Beach County, Fay left some $2.8 million in damage to homes, businesses and government buildings, mostly in Pahokee and Wellington.
Lake Okeechobee’s eastern shore got near-hurricane strength winds, and Pahokee, hardest hit, was the last place that could afford it. The distressed farm town took a hit of $1.5 million, mostly to the city hall and sewer systems.
Memories are short, even in five years, but nature provides reminders. Earlier this summer, on June 6, even though Tropical Storm Andrea was many miles away, its outer bands birthed at least three tornadoes in Palm Beach County, including a 100-mph twister that roared for 2 miles through The Acreage, along a path 50 to 100 yards wide.
This time of the year marks the heart of the hurricane season, and not all storms will be hurricanes. Some can carry small punches but big surprises.
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