Preparing for hurricanes is a ritual as Floridian as oranges, manatees and Mickey Mouse. Hurricane season officially kicked off June 1 and will run through Nov. 30. Although hurricanes can happen outside of that period, the season is when the storms are most likely. With forecasts suggesting an above-normal season, storm preparedness in Florida remains as important today as it did in 1523, the first year on record when a hurricane struck Florida. Although The Villages rarely experiences the type of damage these wind-and-water storms inflict on the coast, the need to prepare reminds residents not to take their personal safety for granted.
Yet, the message to plan for storms sometimes gets lost, said David Casto, Sumter County’s emergency management director.
“People ask, ‘Can it happen here and can it be that bad?’ It can happen here,” he said. “Mother Nature doesn’t work on the human life cycle. I wouldn’t be in this job if it couldn’t happen here.”
And it does happen here — more hurricanes struck Florida than anywhere else in the country, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data show.
Of the 298 hurricanes to directly hit the U.S. Atlantic coast from 1851 to 2020, 120 struck Florida, according to NOAA. That included 37 out of 92 major hurricanes.
Three of the four top-level (Category 5) hurricanes to make landfall in the U.S. did so in Florida: The Labor Day hurricane of 1935, Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and Hurricane Michael in 2018.
But multiple experts think The Villages’ inland location makes it an ideal place for escaping the worst of hurricanes.
“The further you go inland, the more likely the winds will decrease,” said Lt. John Longacre, emergency resource specialist with The Villages Public Safety Department.
Withstanding Hurricanes in The Villages
When Dave Towle, senior forecaster with WVLG 102.7 FM & 640 AM, speaks to clubs and organizations about severe weather in Central Florida, he shows a graphic that lends credence to his belief that The Villages is one of the safest places to be when a hurricane strikes Florida.
The graphic came from the National Hurricane Center, the Miami-based hurricane forecasting and research arm of NOAA, and shows the number of times each county took a direct hit from a hurricane from 1900 to 2010. Monroe County had 32 strikes, Miami-Dade 25 and Broward 22. Sumter, Lake and Marion counties had zero.
Locally, there’s also no threat of storm surge from rising ocean or tributary waters.
“(People) want to keep in mind we’re in one of the safest locations for hurricanes as far as getting hit directly,” said Towle, of the Village of La Belle.
Martha Kohen, director of the University of Florida’s Center for Hydro-generated Urbanism, said she thinks more people will move to The Villages and Florida’s other inland communities as severe weather puts greater pressure on coastal cities and towns.
“I see the center of the state from Orlando to Lake City increasing its population in the next few decades as a safer investment,” said Kohen.
“People ask, ‘Can it happen here and can it be that bad?’ It can happen here. Mother Nature doesn’t work on the human life cycle. I wouldn’t be in this job if it couldn’t happen here.” — David Casto, Sumter County’s emergency management director
Apart from The Villages’ geography, the community’s flood control system, which includes some basins where water can move from one water body to another, was designed to allow the storage of stormwater runoff from heavy rainfall events, District Manager Richard Baier said.
District staff minimize the impact of downpours by running sprinklers when it rains, he said. This allows water to redistribute into basins at a slower rate.
Hurricane Irma drenched The Villages with as much as 16 inches of rain, weather data from WVLG showed. While golf courses resembled ponds, as they are designed to do, no house interior experienced storm-related flooding.
Villagers frequently ask why recreation centers are not utilized as storm shelters. Baier said they’re not designed for the wind pressures of hurricanes. Sheltering is a county responsibility.
However, most homeowners don’t need a shelter because most houses in The Villages were built after Hurricane Andrew, and post-Andrew codes “reflect design standards to enable shelter in place for certain strength wind loads,” Baier stated. However, those in a mobile or manufactured home, or in a low-lying area prone to flooding should heed officials’ advice.
The Villages has a Community Emergency Response Team, a group of volunteer auxiliary first responders trained for situations like natural disasters. CERT of The Villages, administered under The Villages Public Safety Department, currently has 220 active volunteers, to assist public safety agencies.
Many of them responded to Hurricane Irma, staffing a shelter at The Villages High School — the first time a facility in The Villages served as a storm shelter — and conducting welfare checks in neighborhoods with power outages, said Donald Lefebvre, North Area Commander with CERT of The Villages.
CERT volunteers must undergo 36 hours of training before they respond to emergencies, Lefebvre said. They train using standardized materials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Additional training is tailored to older residents’ medical needs.
Places like The Villages tend to be the most resilient after natural disasters, said Elizabeth Dunn, a professor in the University of South Florida’s Global Disaster Management, Humanitarian Relief, and Homeland Security program.
She attributed that to strong social networks, programs supporting preparedness and recovery efforts, and plans that consider the populations they serve.
Casto thinks a neighbor-helping-neighbor approach is highly effective.
“If I can get ambassadors to preach the preparedness message to their clubs and churches, families and friends,” he said, “it’s more effective than me up at a podium saying, ‘Get a plan, get a kit.’”
Practical Preparedness Knowledge
Experts frequently recommend stocking an emergency supply kit, including a battery-powered weather alert radio, and developing a plan with tasks to do before, during and after a hurricane.
With this year’s hurricane season coinciding with the COVID-19 pandemic, FEMA is recommending people also stock hand sanitizer, a face mask and disinfectant wipes as part of their supply kits.
“We want people to take these events very seriously, follow our recommendations, and if we order evacuations, heed those orders as well,” Casto said. “Prepare your home. Prepare for the possibility of being without power for an extended time, no communication for an extended period of time.”
People with special needs, such as those who depend on refrigerated medicines or oxygen, are among those who must heed evacuation orders to survive when a power outage occurs, Dunn said.
“This means that they will either need to know if they will be staying in a special-needs shelter or general population shelter, plan to stay with friends or family members, or if they will need a generator,” she said.
The biggest obstacle to hurricane resiliency is when people become complacent and don’t prepare, Dunn said.
“This is why having a plan and knowing what you need for your hurricane kit or what to take to a shelter if you evacuate is important,” she said. “Staying informed and listening to your local officials will help to address some of those issues that lead to people having to be rescued, injuries or even loss of life.”
What to Gather for an Emergency Supply Kit
- One gallon of water per person per day for at least three days, for drinking and sanitation.
- At least a three-day supply of nonperishable food.
- A battery-powered or crank AM/FM radio and NOAA weather radio.
- Dust masks, which can filter contaminated air, plastic sheeting and duct tape, to shelter-in-place.
- Flashlights and extra batteries.
- A first-aid kit.
- Whistle to signal for help.
- Moist towelettes, garbage bags and plastic ties, for personal sanitation.
- Wrench or pliers to turn off utilities
- A manual can opener.
- Local maps.
- Cellphone with chargers and a back-up battery.
Other Kit Items
- Prescription and nonprescription medications.
- Glasses and contact lens solution.
- Cash or traveler's checks.
- Sleeping bags and/or warm blankets.
- A climate appropriate change of clothing, as well as sturdy shoes to protect against debris on the ground.
Don't Forget Your Pets
When planning for a natural disaster, people must consider the survival of everyone in their household. More than ever, they're considering pets part of the family. And like any human family member, ensuring pet safety is important before, during and after a storm as well.
- Never leave pets behind during a storm, even if you plan to be away for just a few minutes. It's unlikely for pets to survive on their own.
- Make arrangements with friends, relatives or neighbors if they may be willing to shelter you and your pets.
- Keep a list of boarding facilities and veterinarians, but only consider a kennel or vet's office as a last resort. Be sure to include 24-hour phone numbers.
- If planning to go to a hotel or shelter, confirm whether your destination is pet-friendly.
- Include pet supplies in your disaster kit. These may include food, water, water bowls, cat litter and litter trays, medications and medical records, a first aid kit, leashes, carriers, pet beds and toys, and current photos of you and your pets to help with identification if you're separated.
Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or email@example.com.