Hurricane Hell

By Bob & Marita Bobick, Bobicks Palm Growers, Orlando, Florida
Chamaerops No. 51 - published online 22-04-2005

The Hurricane Palm, Dictyosperma album, native to the Mascarene Islands is said to withstand the strongest storms.
Photo by Tobias W. Spanner

It's been one hell of a hurricane season this year for us here in Orlando. We are calling our place "Falling Oaks Farm" right now and plan to replant with more palms once we are able to clean the place up. We figure on at least a year before that happens.

Chapter 1- Charlie

Charlie was the first to hit us and did quite a bit of damage. We figure at least 30 trees went down (oaks and pines). The winds were incredible; the airport in Orlando recorded sustained winds at 90 miles per hour with gusts up to 105 miles per hour. The eye on this storm was only 20 miles wide so most of the damage was a small swathe right up the center of the state. Unfortunately for us, the center of the storm passed just 13 miles from us. We were hit in the middle of the night and kept hearing 'snaps,' thinking they were breaking branches. At first light, we soon realized that the snaps were 60 ft pines that had broken in half, some with diameters of 14-16 inches.

The only positive thing about Charlie was that its forward movement was so fast that we only had hurricane force winds for about three hours. Also, there was very little rainfall associated with this hurricane. The damage to Southwest Florida, where it hit at 140 miles per hour, was total devastation. Nurseries like Palmco on Pine Island reported all their field grown material flattened as well as inundated with salt water. The worst part of this storm was the fact that we went without power or water for seven long hot days. This was further complicated by the shortage of gas due to the lack of electricity. Supplies such as food, ice, generators, plywood, etc. were nowhere to be had. We had to drive to Cocoa Beach, which had escaped any damage, to get gas, ice, chainsaw blades and food. One last note on this storm: 90 mile an hour winds really do sound like a freight train passing at high speed!

Chapter 2- Frances

Two weeks later, with things barely getting back to normal, hurricane Frances decided to pay Florida a visit. The nature of this storm was entirely different. The eye of the storm was 80-100 miles wide and its forward motion was painfully slow, sometimes down to 3 miles an hour. (The weather people joked that you could probably WALK faster that the storm was moving.) Thankfully, its maximum wind at landfall was only 105 miles an hour, but its slow forward speed kept the winds high and pounding for 12-14 hours. It took almost three days from start to finish for this storm to move through Orlando. Although the center of the storm hit in Stewart, 75 mile an hour winds with higher gusts hit the coastline from Ft. Lauderdale to Daytona Beach.

Many areas like West Palm Beach and the Daytona area were without power and supplies for weeks. The other problem with this storm was the copious amount of rain due to its slow movement. We had 20 inches of rain here in Orlando and we're sure other areas had more. Flooding was a big problem. Needless to say, standing water and the Florida heat created a bumper crop of mosquitoes, which only added to the agony. In this storm we experienced 60 mile an hour winds, since the center stayed far south of us, but the duration of the winds pushed down another 20 oaks and pines. In the combination of both storms, not one palm on our property fell down or was damaged severely, except those that were crushed by the falling oaks and pines.
One other problem that arose from this particular storm was the fact that they evacuated over a million and a half people from the coastal sections of the East Coast. This forced migration used up every gallon of gas in the state. This was further complicated by the three seaports of Florida (Jacksonville, Tampa, and Port Everglades) being closed and stopping gasoline supplies from reaching the state. Our own local port, Port Canaveral, is still closed due to shifting sands filling up the shipping channels. We only lost power for two and a half days this time, probably because the majority of the trees fell over power lines with the first storm. The streets in Orlando are filled with debris from people's yards. It will probably take the county a month or two just to clean the mess up.

Chapter 3- Ivan

Orlando lucked out on this one. Ivan came up the west coast of Florida and for a while they were predicting that he would come in through Tampa and head right for Orlando. Ivan was a category five and they said he was bigger than Andrew (the hurricane that devastated Homestead years ago). Seeing a radar image of this hurricane on the television sent chills down our spines. Once again people began scrambling for food, ice, generators, gas, and plywood. It was the norm to see homes with blue tarps on the roofs and totally boarded up. A very few, including ourselves, did not choose to board up our windows and doors; we just hoped for the best and 'hunkered down' to wait it out. But Ivan kept going north and hit the panhandle of Florida instead. Our sympathies went out to those poor people in Pensacola and Apalachicola. Their area was totally devastated by Ivan. The tidal surge was so strong that it literally moved the bridge on Interstate 10 off its foundations and killed a few people unlucky enough to be driving the highway at the time. Not only were 140 mile an hour winds devastating for those areas that experienced them, but they also had the secondary problem that most of the resources and supplies were already staged and being used in the south and central parts of the state. (Believe it or not, as we write this in November, there is still a dry wall and shingle shortage. Roofing contractors are doing their best, but it is estimated that it could take up to two years for many people to get their homes repaired.) There were sighs of relief in Orlando but the plywood over the windows stayed up all over town. No one was taking any chances. The media kept warning people about having no exits in case of fire, but few were even listening. The general plan was to wait until November and the end of the hurricane season.

Chapter 4- Jeanne

Even as Ivan was approaching Florida by way of the Gulf, there was another storm brewing out in the Atlantic, which had been christened Jeanne and the general thought was that she would head due north and not bother anyone. Once Ivan had made landfall and done his worst, Jeanne decided to do some fancy footwork and circled around and headed toward Florida. Even the Governor of the state was astounded to hear that Jeanne had made a circle and, live on TV, you heard him say, "What???" Jeanne was then predicted to follow Frances' footsteps and come in through Stewart once again and move across the state. The citizens of this state were anxious, worried, and totally stressed out. What are the chances of three storms hitting in one year in the same area? This couldn't be happening.

Lines began forming at Home Depot for plywood, tarps, generators, gas cans, and propane. The power companies were warning that this time we could be without power for weeks since their crews were stretched way too thin all over the state and crews from other nearby states were already working up in North Florida. They had put out calls to Texas, Missouri and a whole host of faraway places for help. Gas lines formed quickly and people were acting crazy once again. Tempers were stretched to their limits. Then we waited. Jeanne made landfall in the exact place Frances had a few weeks before. She was faster than Frances but slower than Charlie and she came in the middle of the night.

Once again we were lucky that the storm stayed south of us but the winds were still at least 50-60 miles per hour. Trees that had been leaning finally gave up and came crashing down. We had a huge 50 ft oak next to the house that we knew we were going to lose and prayed it would not hit the house. It finally gave and quietly drifted to the ground with only one branch touching the house. To give you an idea of the ramifications of the three storms, starting Aug. 13th, our county, Orange County, does not expect to finish all the debris pick up until December 15th of this year. To give you an idea of the damage to homes in Orlando from these three storms, we need to tell you a little story. Our neighbor was returning from a trip after Jeanne had come through. As the plane was starting to circle the airport, she looked down and thought to herself, "Wow, I never realized how many pools people have in Orlando!" As the plane lost more altitude in its circling pattern, she said to herself, "Wow, look how very blue those pools are!" As the plane approached the runway to land, she realized those weren't pools she was looking at, they were the blue tarps covering and protecting the roofs of damaged homes!

The one thing we have heard time and again from people since the storms of this summer is that when they start to replant their landscapes, they're not planting any more oaks; it's going to be lots and lots of PALMS! It is incredible how palms have managed to withstand so much and still look good and be standing upright! The genus that is truly a champion against high wind is undoubtedly Sabal. In our garden Sabal palmetto, S. causiarum, S. mauritiiformis, S. rosei, S. bermudana were literally unfazed. The genus that fared worst was Syagrus. Their long petioles and fronds tended to tie together like a 'maypole' and many were pushed to severe angles.

Another species that did not fare well were the Wallichia. With their large leaves our W. densiflora were at 30 degree angles. The palm that surprised us and we expected to go down was our Bismarckia noblis. These were the first to go down at Fairchild Tropical Gardens during Hurricane Andrew due to their stiff leaves, but our Bismarckia weathered the storms magnificently. Our Arenga did great, Livistona (although a trifle beat up) are still standing tall, and Phoenix was an outstanding trooper, especially P. sylvestris. The other problem that occurs (and we had seen this after Andrew at Fairchild Tropical Gardens) is after the canopy trees have fallen, understory palms like Chamaedorea, Laccospadix, etc. are exposed to much more sun which causes a lot of leaf burn. Thankfully we are approaching the winter season and the low angle of the sun is sparing us from a lot of sunburn. We can only imagine what the June or July sun at its zenith will do to these shade-loving plants.

So that's where we are. We still anticipate six months more work and many thousands of dollars to restore what we once had. But as an old newscaster used to say when he completed his broadcast, no matter how bad the outcome, "Press on regardless!" And so we shall.


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