#NoFuelNoFire – We Can Stop Wildfire Before It Starts

By John Zarrella – Former CNN Correspondent

Golden Gate Estates in Southwest Florida east of Naples looks quite a bit different than it did back in 1985. Today there are four lane roads, strip malls, housing developments, and, of course, traffic. Thirty years ago, the roads were two lanes that faded into dusty streets with a few homes scattered amongst the Pine trees and cabbage palms. Heck, I don’t recall a traffic light, just stop signs at intersections. NoFuelNo Fire Facenook

January of that year brought with it bitter cold and a nasty biting wind. Couple that with drought conditions and you had an ideal recipe for a wildfire. We got the call January 30, “Get over to Golden Gate.” A young Forest Ranger had been killed when he was plowing a fire break and the head of the fire blew up around him.

None of us had ever covered a wildfire before. That night you could see the embers jumping from tree to tree and swirling in the cold wind. I stood in the high dead grass at the edge of a dirt road with my back to the woods. I had just started my on-camera presentation when Steve Sonnenblick, our engineer, saw it coming. He yelled to watch out, grabbed my winter coat, and pulled me onto the gravel. The fire swept across the dry brush where I had been standing. The heat was like opening an oven door. That’s the nature of wildfires. They are like living, breathing organisms consuming everything in their path. When there is nothing left to devour, they move on. And in an instant, a place you thought you were safe was NOT.

I was reminded of that night in 1985 while watching coverage of the fires raging in Southern California, New Mexico, and Arizona. While the American West sees more than its fair share of fires, every state is at some risk. Remember the headlines “Florida on Fire” back in 1998? More than 2,000 fires scorched half a million acres causing $600 million in losses. Three hundred homes were engulfed. At one point, 100,000 people were evacuated. In 2002, the Hayman fire outside Denver consumed nearly 140,000 acres and destroyed 130 homes. Annually, there are 75,000 wildfires that burn an average of 7 million acres and destroy thousands of homes and structures. And get this. Many fires are caused, firefighters have told me, just by people who throw cigarette butts out their car window.

During those 1998 Florida fires, one woman apparently in shock spilled her heart about losing everything, “Every baby book. Every hair lock from when they were young. Everything. All their clothes and all their toys.” That doesn’t need to be you. There are things you can and should do to easily make your home a defensible space. Here are a few:

  • Clean leaves and debris from gutters, eaves, porches, and decks.
  • Remove dead vegetation from under your porch and deck and within 10 feet of your home.
  • Move flammable material like firewood piles and propane tanks to no closer than 30 feet from your home.
  • Cover exterior attic vents with metal mesh to prevent hot embers from entering.
  • Keep your yard watered and maintained.
  • Prune trees so the lowest branches are no less than six-to-10 feet from the ground.

And, by all means have an evacuation plan. You may have to get out in the face of a wildfire, but if you do the simple things to protect your property, chances are you will still have a home to go back to. There are many other invaluable tips and videos you can find at www.flash.org.

I went to California for the Anderson Cooper show in 2007 to cover the horrible fires outside Los Angeles and in San Diego. The first night, we flew in a helicopter over the foothills. You could see pockets of fire in all directions. While some of them were caused by lightning strikes, others were, sadly, the result of arson. At least five people were arrested. FLASH documented one homeowner’s journey during these fires in the video Tale of Two Homes – Wildfire.

Whatever the cause, why risk losing everything when just doing the little things could save your home and more importantly your life? Take a good look at those wildfires burning out west. Do you need any more of a wake-up call?

Links of Interest:

Fight Wildfire Before it Starts

Tale of Two Homes – Wildfire (video)

Wildfire Protection for Your Home (video)

#NoFuelNoFire (wildfire photo gallery)

Dr. William Gray – A Man for All Seasons

By John Zarrella – Former CNN Correspondent

Oh joy. Hurricane season is nearly upon us. It’s like an annual check-up at the dentist. You don’t know what to expect! But if you brushed and flossed, you should be okay. Same can be said for hurricane season. If you have your emergency supplies ready, you’ve secured your home, and have an evacuation plan, you should be fine. If not, what are you waiting for? You need me to come over and hold your hand?

For me, this season will be very different. Perhaps the most recognizable voice in forecasting over the past half century will be silent. Bill Gray passed away last month. He was the “Vin Scully” of hurricanes. I hope you got a chuckle out of that line Bill. I know you were a huge baseball fan.Dr-William-Gray

When Dr. Gray started putting out his seasonal hurricane forecast in the 1980’s just about everybody rolled their eyes. Those who didn’t certainly raised an eyebrow. How times have changed! It’s safe to say Bill got the last laugh. Who doesn’t put one out these days? Heck, even I did. Bill was needling me one year to come up with my own numbers.  So, I did. He put it up on the board in his office at Colorado State University. At the end of the season, he sent a letter to my boss at CNN, Eason Jordan, telling Eason that my forecast had beaten his. I’m not sure how true that was but that was Bill, a wonderful, kind man with a tremendous sense of humor who at least publicly laughed off all those who thought he was a snake oil salesman.

Dr. Gray’s contribution was far more than just the science of forecasting. He elevated hurricane awareness more than any single individual. At CNN we’d attend the National Hurricane Conference and Florida Governor’s Hurricane Conference just to hear what Dr. Gray was forecasting and to get an interview with him. His forecast was always one of the top stories in the newscasts not just for CNN, but for other national news outlets and for local radio and televisions stations across the country. Today we would say his forecasts always went viral! Bill’s work transcended science. He would be the first to admit that over the years he threw in a clunker or two. But he got people’s attention like no one else could.

Now I’m not going to beat you over the head to get your attention.

Look, preparing for a hurricane is not rocket science and it doesn’t need to be crazy expensive. You know that. So, here’s something that will guide you through the process.

A new campaign called #HurricaneStrong is rolling out. Along with www.flash.org, it is everything you need to know about how to secure your home and protect your family. Is there anything more important? Do I need to answer that?

There are a number of activities this month to promote the campaign:

  • May 15 – 21 is National Hurricane Preparedness Week
  • On May 15, The Home Depot will conduct free do it yourself hurricane workshops in 695 stores in hurricane prone states. The same day, The Weather Channel program “Wx Geeks” will feature the campaign
  • The five day Hurricane Awareness Tour kicks off in San Antonio, on the 16th followed by stops in Galveston, New Orleans, Mobile, and Naples. Hurricane Hunter aircraft, pilots, and storm experts will be on hand.

Some of you are probably saying to yourselves, “I don’t need all that. I’ve been through a hurricane and know what to expect.” Do you? Last month I was honored to be the keynote speaker at the National Tropical Weather Conference in South Padre Island, Texas. I was talking about the speech with a producer, Rich Phillips, who had covered dozens of hurricanes with me. It struck both of us that out of all those storms, only on a few occasions we were close to the core of the storm where the really bad stuff happens. And consider this, no major hurricane, category three or higher has hit the U.S. since Wilma in 2005. Just because you experienced a hurricane doesn’t mean you really went through one. Keep that in mind in case one heads your way this year!

Here’s the bottom line. The more you do now, the easier it will be to recover after the storm passes. It’s real simple. Misery does not have to follow disaster.

Rising Up from the Rubble: A Look Back the 1985 Mexico City Earthquake

By John Zarrella – Former CNN Correspondent

There are moments, events in all our lives that are etched in our memories. They are with us forever. The good ones, we gladly recall. The bad ones, we’d like to forget or at least stuff away in some remote receptacle in our minds.

For me, one of those haunting events took place a little over thirty years ago in Mexico City, Mexico. On the morning of September 19, 1985 a magnitude 8.1 earthquake shook the ground beneath the city. More than four hundred buildings collapsed. People died. To this day, no one is quite sure how many. The 144225-004-6BAC8B6Festimates vary wildly from five thousand to thirty thousand.

That night, I was on the ground reporting for CNN. Fires still burned. Smoke rose from every corner of the city. People dazed and in shock stood on the streets, the rubble of homes and businesses around them. All they had left were the clothes they were wearing.

Yet, the image that remains most vivid for me is what transpired over the next week at the city’s Juarez Hospital. It had collapsed floor on top of floor.  Hundreds of doctors, nurses and patients died. Every night we would go there for updates and to watch rescuers dig through the debris. Hundreds of people watched too, some hoping a relative would be pulled free others were just there because there was no place else to go. Huge spotlights run off generators were focused on the building, what was left of it. Every time the rescuers would hear something, a hint of life, the crowd went silent. There were survivor stories. In fact, more than dozen infants were pulled out alive. To this day, they are known as the “Miracle Babies.”

Mexico City was a long time ago and much has changed when it comes to earthquake resilience, awareness, and preparedness. I’d call it “RAP” if it helped get folks attention. Here at home, the focus on educating the public and strengthening infrastructure has never been greater. Look no further than next month when the National Earthquake Conference convenes in Long Beach, California. Held every four years, it brings together scientists, engineers, emergency managers, first responders, insurers; everybody who’s got skin in the game to discuss what’s new, what’s next, and developing a national strategy.

So now you’re raising your eyebrows. A national strategy you ask? Isn’t that like telling people in Alaska they need to worry about hurricanes! Well, unlike hurricanes, just about every state can be impacted by an earthquake. Remember 2011? The epicenter of a magnitude 5.8 was Louisa County, Virginia. If we go back a ways, between December of 1811 and February 1812, three earthquakes all estimated greater than magnitude 7.0 struck the central U.S. along the New Madrid Seismic Zone.  Experts say that area is thirty years overdue for a quake greater than six.

Now, unless you’ve seen it, lived through it, it is impossible to comprehend. But every expert will tell you that being prepared can be a game saver for you and your family. Just knowing the very basics can make a difference. So here’s a pop quiz. Do you know what to do if the ground starts shaking? It’s pretty straight forward…Drop, Cover, and Hold On. What you don’t do is run. Mark Benthien is Outreach Director for the Southern California Earthquake Center at USC. “When people run it’s not necessarily because they are in panic mode. It’s a rational reaction-they’re running because they are afraid of being hurt.” However, research shows people who run are more likely to be hurt. “It’s like running down the center of a plane during heavy turbulence,” Benthien says. The bottom line he adds, “Preparedness is about what you do ahead of time so you can survive and recover afterwards.”

And, the “afterwards” will last a whole lot longer than the event itself. Even in the biggest earthquake in Southern California, Benthien says, “Ninety-nine percent of the people will be alive and probably not injured but living in a different world. Their concern should be how are they going to live after that.”

There’s no reason to sugar coat it. It won’t be pretty. Benthien laid out what might happen in the aftermath of a large quake on the San Andreas Fault:

  • There could be as many as sixteen hundred fires burning. Not enough firefighters to put them all out. Mutual assistance from surrounding areas might not happen because they’d be dealing with their own issues.
  • Water and sewer pipes will fracture. Repairs to the concrete pipes could take weeks or longer and replacing them? In a given year Benthien says, “There isn’t enough concrete made in the world to replace it.”
  • Interstates 5 and 10 and the rail line might be impassable making it difficult at best to get in relief supplies and help.
  • With the Interstates and rail line crippled, goods coming into the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach might pile up on the docks. The entire nation would be affected.

So look, go to FLASH.org. Just take a few minutes of your time. You will find invaluable tips for keeping your family safe and your home earthquake ready. You can also go to Earthquakecountry.org and look for the seven steps to earthquake safety. What Mark Benthien said bears repeating, “Preparedness is about what you do ahead of time so you can survive and recover afterwards.”

Coastal or Inland: Where it Rains – It Can Flood

By John Zarrella – Former CNN Correspondent

The rain had been coming down for days.  By the early morning hours of November 6, 1977, an earthen dam near the North Georgia town of Toccoa couldn’t take it any longer and ruptured. The people at a tiny Bible College downstream were mostly asleep when the flood waters hit.  Thirty-nine perished. Many were children.

At the time, I was working for a local Atlanta television station.  I had only been in the business a couple of years.  Now, nearly forty years later, Toccoa remains the deadliest flood event I was ever involved in covering.

Unless you hatoccoa03d relatives there or were a journalist, Toccoa is one of those largely forgotten moments in history.   But it is, and should be, a tragic reminder of how quickly inland flooding can change or even take your life.

At Toccoa the people never had a chance.  But in most flooding events, people who die didn’t have to. That’s right, they didn’t have to! How many times have you heard this:  “Some of these people on the highway trying to drive through this stuff—they’re very stupid.” That was a quote to CNN from a Missouri flood victim this past December.

If you look at federal statistics, more than half of all flood related deaths come when a car is driven into water.  Bill Read is a former Director of the National Hurricane Center.  Even in hurricanes, inland flooding is the number one killer.  Read told me, “they don’t think it’s as bad as it really is and they drive into it and it’s too late when they finally figure out its going to float their car.”

People who survive always, Read says, have the same refrain, “The people that are rescued or made it out alive they almost invariable say ‘I didn’t think it was going to be that bad.’”

It’s not as if the “stay out of the water” messaging isn’t out there.  The “Turn Around Don’t Drown” program by the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes and the National Weather Service is exactly what it says.  Don’t drive into that water!   The yellow signs are in high risk, low lying areas around the country.  Local meteorologists always get out that message to their audience whenever there’s a flood threat.

Over the course of forty years, Read has seen every kind of flooding imaginable – from hurricanes, flash floods, to riverine.  “The most phenomenal thing to me was just the incredible rate of rainfall. We’ve had events where the hourly rainfall rates approach 4 to 6 inches in an hour. Almost nobody lives in an area that can be designed to handle the runoff from that kind of rain. So it almost invariably leads to rather severe flooding.”

Read’s takeaway from all he’s witnessed, we must be aware of our risk.  And he adds, that risk is not is not isolated to one part of the country or another.  “When you come right down to it there’s no place in the U.S. that’s not vulnerable to inland flooding.”

Just last year major flooding events occurred in Texas, Oklahoma, Illinois, Ohio, South Carolina, Florida.  If you know you are at risk, there are measures you can take to protect your home and property. The most import of which is to get a flood insurance policy.  Consider elevating your air conditioning unit, water heater, and furnace. For more tips and information, go to the FLASH website.

Sometimes there’s just no rhyme or reason. Bad weather “stuff” just happens. It’s fickle, unpredictable, weird, and strange. You can attach all sorts of adjectives to it.

Back in 2008, Tropical Storm Fay set a record-making four landfalls in Florida.  Unpredictable, weird, fickle, strange…you pick the adjective.  As it meandered across the state, it just kept dumping water. In some places more than twenty inches fell.  North of Melbourne the rain gauges swelled to a record twenty-seven inches.

We started chasing Fay on August 17 for CNN in Key West and Key Largo.  The next three days, reporting from Fort Pierce, Port St. Lucie and Melbourne required high water boots. At a place called Lamplighter Village, Florida Wildlife officers used swamp buggies to go in and rescue folks. As always, some wouldn’t leave. All the wildlife officials could say, “If you decide to get out, give us a call.”

In Port St. Lucie, a volunteer rescuer got people out in an airboat, again, those who would leave. His warning to the others, “Just try not to wait too late. It’s easier in the daylight than it is at night.  Everything bad happens at night.”

Tropical Storm Fay is a poster child for all those adjectives, and how it can happen anywhere.  And the message is clear, bad weather “stuff” happens.  Know your risk.

Hurricane Center Director Deconstructs “Lite” Season

By John Zarrella – Former CNN Correspondent

It’s over. Put a fork in it. The 2015 Hurricane season is done. You get six months to exhale unless something crazy stupid happens! No more looking over the shoulder out into the Atlantic or Gulf wondering if that puff of clouds might grow into the next named storm. No more wondering if this might be the year your town or city’s luck runs out.

Unfortunately we, the collective we who live in harm’s way, don’t really seem to wonder near enough. And if you’re not wondering then you’re certainly not doing much to prepare. Over the years, study after study has shown most folks living along the coastal United States from Maine to Texas don’t give hurricanes much thought until one is about to beat down their door.

And that is troubling to the experts. I talked recently with National Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb. “I fear that so many coastal and inland residents at risk to wind and water hazards have forgotten how to get ready for the next hurricane season. We must take action now to survive the storm and be resilient in the aftermath.”

Sadly, it’s the same refrain Knabb’s predecessors shared with me over and over again, decade after decade. Whether it was Bob Sheets or Max Mayfield or Bill Read or Jerry Jarrell and all the way back to Neil Frank the fear was people were not paying attention. Bottom line, not much has changed. The directors talk, we don’t listen.

Sure there are spikes in attention the season after a big one hits like an Andrew, Hugo, or Katrina. But then you get a few years in a row of relative calm and we, that collective we again, fall back into our old complacency. For every Hurricane Center director, complacency was the first ingredient in that recipe for disaster.

Knabb says one of his great frustrations is that it really doesn’t take a whole lot of heavy lifting to be ready, “Here’s a start to your hurricane resilience to do list: create an evacuation plan, buy supplies, update insurance, including flood, and strengthen your home.”

So, why put it off? Now that you can exhale, now that the season is over, there’s no better time to get your plan together. For thirty-five years going back to David and Frederick in 1979, I have covered hurricanes. The common denominator in every, single storm was last minute panic. There were no exceptions. You’ve seen the images, cars backed up for miles as people flee the storm. Supermarkets wiped out. How about the long, long endless lines that snaked around gas stations? The guy with the plywood sheets roped down to his compact car. And that’s just before the storm hits! Really? Do you look forward to that?

No one can tell you what next season will bring. Who could have predicted Florida, the peninsula that sticks out like a sore thumb would have gone ten years without a hurricane? Director Knabb says that doesn’t change his outlook, “I don’t know how much longer we have until we get another Florida hurricane, but they’re coming back at some point. I live in Florida, and I’m going to continue to plan every year as if my house could be hit by a hurricane.”

2015 was an El Nino year. Strong winds helped keep a lid on hurricane activity and shielded the U.S. mainland. But as Knabb says, it didn’t shield the Bahamas from Joaquin. “Do you think the people in the Bahamas care about how many numbers of storms there were this year? They care that they got hit. And that really is at the end of the day all that matters. And we can get hit in any year. We can get hit in any era, El Nino or not, and everybody tends to look for this thing that they can hang their hat on and say ‘ok, this season it’s not my problem’, but it is our problem every year.”

Here’s a case in point from the Zarrella personal experience archives. This hurricane season ended with eleven named storms. The last was November’s Hurricane Kate which turned away from land. Thirty years ago, the 1985 season ended with eleven named storms. You know the name of the eleventh? Kate. It too was a November hurricane. But, it didn’t turn out to sea.

My crew and I were in an RV. I probably should have thought that one through a little more! But, back in those days, the dark ages of television, we didn’t have satellite trucks lined up every few miles along the coastline. The RV was our production facility on wheels. We loaded it with food, camera equipment, and edit machines. We could shoot, write, and edit our stories all in one place and then drive to a feed point. It worked just fine until November 21.

We were heading down a two lane road towards Mexico Beach, Florida in the Panhandle. Problem was category two Kate got there first. So here we are in this RV as the storm comes ashore. Pine trees are snapping. The rain hit the windshield so hard and heavy that you could see absolutely nothing. It was a white out. The RV was trembling. Looking out the side window, I saw the tin roof of a barn lift off, then sail across a field until it was blown to bits.

My cameramen Doug Hart and Rudy Marshall were yelling, “We’ve got to get back to that house we saw up the road.” The roar of the storm outside was so loud you had to yell. My editor Steve Sonnenblick was behind the wheel. He began backing the RV up the road. There was no way we could turn around. The wind and rain was hitting us head on. If we attempted to turn, the RV would have been broadsided, and I have no doubt, would have flipped.

I don’t know how far we drove in reverse. It may have been a half a mile or so. But when you are driving in reverse on a two lane road in the middle of a hurricane, it takes a whole heck of a lot longer than you want! When we got close enough, we left the RV on the side of the road, ran for the house, and started banging on the front door. The husband and wife were more than a little bewildered seeing four guys standing on their porch, but they graciously let us in to ride out the storm.

The point is, as Knabb and all the other National Hurricane Center Directors have repeated until they were blue in the face, you have to be ready. You need a plan whether it’s June, November, or anytime in between. Why risk your life or the lives of your loved ones. No one has a crystal ball. No one can tell you when or if. Director . Knabb says, “We learned this season that you can have really, really horrible impacts in what had been forecast to be a below average year and what has been an El Nino year.”

And by the way, we never rented an RV again to cover a hurricane!

Hurricane Wilma – Distant Memory or Timely Reminder?

By John Zarrella – Former CNN Correspondent

The sign in front of the Ramada Inn Hotel in Pensacola, Florida stood on a pole about fifty feet off the ground. The manager at the front desk told us not to worry—it had withstood Hurricane Ivan the year before. That’s nice I thought, and proceeded to tell the camera crews not to park underneath it. Turned out that was good advice.

It was July 2005, the morning of July 10 to be exact. Anderson Cooper and his team had just rolled in from Panama City where one on air personality is reported to have said as they left, “dead men walking!” I guess that phrase is appropriate anytime you are planning to stand out in the middle of a hurricane.

Cooper and I would tag team this one together. That afternoon hurricane season 2005 kicked into gear, high gear as the “D” storm Dennis came ashore. As the storm hit, we huddled against a wall at the corner of the hotel. The wind blew, pine trees snapped and guess what, that Ramada Inn sign that had survived Ivan started spinning like a top, flew off its mounting, and crashed down in the parking lot. Chunks of razor sharp aluminum went airborne. Anyway, the video evidence of our “dead men walking” moment is still all over YouTube. Cooper

Of course, no one had a clue that Dennis was just foreshadowing worse storms to come, life altering events from Katrina to Rita and finally Wilma. So here we are approaching ten years since Wilma hit South Florida. And that means ten years of relative calm here, ten years of tropical tranquility.

My season of the stowilmarms had started with “D” and ended with “W.” Wilma, you may recall, had at one point 175 mile per hour sustained winds and the lowest barometric pressure ever recorded in the Atlantic Basin. It hammered the Yucatan Peninsula as a category four hurricane. Then it took a right turn, accelerated to the east, and made a beeline towards Florida.

Anderson and I were again joined at the rain slicker for Wilma. He emailed, asking where I thought we should be. I suggested Marco Island on the west coast close to where most folks thought it would make landfall. I was pretty close. The storm came ashore near Naples as a Category three hurricane. We were near the center of it. The eye took a good hour to pass over us on the morning of October 24. We stood out on the beach for this one. No Ramada Inn sign to worry about!

But, while I was right about landfall, I was really, really wrong about where the worst impact would be! The west coast made out pretty well, but the reports out of Broward and Palm Beach Counties on the east coast were not good. My own home in the town of Davie near Fort Lauderdale took a pretty good punch. Since I’m not a meteorologist I will spare you the meteorology. Why it did what it did is a good read from the real experts at the National Hurricane Center. For me, Wilma is the poster storm for why it’s critical to be prepared even if you don’t think you’re in much danger.

We left Marco Island at lunchtime and headed east across I-75. As we drove, I tried reaching my wife Robin, but the cell phone lines were jammed. I wasn’t terribly worried about my house. I had shuttered all the openings before leaving for Marco and we had a Miami-Dade hurricane code garage door. I knew my family would be safe. And, as a journalist who covered hurricanes I would have looked like an idiot if I hadn’t taken all the precautions to protect my home. We had plenty of food on hand too.

“What a mess”, was my first thought as I entered our neighborhood. Trees were down, power out and roofs were damaged. A gas grill ended up at the bottom of our friend’s swimming pool, later to be recovered by my sons and their friends who made considerable money in the days after cleaning up debris.

My family was just fine. But my wife warned that while the house looked good from the front, the back, well, not so much. There was a huge pine tree down by the lake. It snapped at the base but no, it couldn’t fall harmlessly into the lake, it had to fall on the screened enclosure over the pool. The enclosure crumbled and Wilma’s winds threw some of the beams onto the roof raking the tiles.

There wasn’t much I could do about any of this at the moment. Overall, it was just cosmetic damage. Close to six figures worth, but we were fortunate. And, I still had to work. That night Cooper and I were on the Larry King show. Much of Broward County and parts of Palm Beach County were a mess.

Here’s one of the great Wilma ironies. Florida prided itself on being the best prepared for hurricanes. Yet less than twenty-four hours after the storm, thousands of people were lined up for water and ice. Most gas stations were closed because they didn’t have generators. CNN sent in a fuel truck to keep us going. One hundred thousand people waited in lines for emergency food stamps.

One Broward official told me, “I think we need to do a better job on the ‘how to’ in their preparations.”

Some six million people were without power. If you didn’t have a generator you were in trouble. One of our friends living in Atlanta drove down with a couple for their family here. But, even if you had a portable generator, you couldn’t get fuel. A neighbor loaded gas cans in his truck and drove to Fort Myers to find it. At the time I remember wishing I had a standby generator that can run for more than a week. I do now!

So Wilma became known as the Urban Storm because it took out so many trees that took out so many power lines. Some people were without juice for close to a month. Ours came back on Halloween afternoon, eight days after Wilma hit. There was one bit of good fortune. The cold front that forced the hurricane to turn right and race across Florida pushed through right after the storm exited bringing cool, bearable October weather.

Six weeks later as Christmas approached, the Wilma effect resulted in an odd holiday shopping trend. The hottest selling gifts were coolers, flashlights, and propane powered stoves. A manager at Outdoor World told me, “We’ve had people come in here and actually buy for their kids three, four, five different types of stoves and they’re going to give them as Christmas gifts.”

One woman bought thirty, I’m not kidding, thirty lanterns. An author even wrote a book called the “Storm Gourmet Cook Book,” how to prepare good meals without power. It sold out just in time for Christmas.

It has now been a decade since Wilma and a decade since South Florida has been hit. You have to wonder with so much time for complacency to set in, would the result be any different now? Or would we again be Christmas shopping for propane stoves and storm cook books?

Hurricane Katrina Through the Lens of Former CNN Correspondent John Zarrella

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By John Zarrella

As Hurricane Katrina sideswiped New Orleans, windows blew out in the buildings next to our hotel on Common Street. Sheets of glass fell and shattered on the street.  Reams of paper flew out from the now breached office windows. It was like watching one of those old New York City ticker-tape parades.

As a reporter it was always frustrating covering hurricanes in the moment. Your field of vision is narrow. You can only report on what is happening around you. It is after the storm has passed when you get a better sense of the larger picture.

Katrina was different. In the late morning when the wind subsided, we drove out to get a better perspective of the damage. You know how some things always stick with you?  For me, on that day it was the drive along Elysian Fields Avenue. As we headed towards Lake Pontchartrain I kept thinking, “Why is there so much water?  It hadn’t rained that much during the storm.” At least, I didn’t think it had.

As we drove closer to the lake, the water kept getting higher. We stopped. An elderly man was sitting on his porch. With the water above our knees, my camera crew and I waded over to him. I asked, “Have you ever seen the water this high before?” “Not since Hurricane Betsy,” he said. Perhaps we were standing, and didn’t know it, in the first of the flood waters. To this day I still wonder.

That night, people poured out of the hotels along Canal Street. Many were locals who rather than stay in their homes during the storm got rooms in the French Quarter. They were smiling, laughing, and raising glasses. It was festive. New Orleans had dodged the bullet again they thought.

The next morning, I woke up, looked out my hotel room window and saw water and cars parked along the sidewalk bobbing in it. We all know what happened after that.

Recently, I went back to the Gulf Coast to work on a “Ten Years Later” story. I don’t care to call it an anniversary. For me, anniversaries should be reserved for happy occasions.

But, there are a couple of stories from my trip that really highlighted the human strength to, as William Faulkner wrote, “endure and prevail.”

After Katrina, Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi was called part of the forgotten coast. So much of the media attention went to New Orleans that places like Bay Saint Louis, Biloxi and Gulfport fell out of the spotlight rather quickly even though they took Katrina’s direct hit.

That was just fine Mayor Les Fillingame told me. “We didn’t want to let anybody see us bleeding.  We didn’t want to let anybody see us wounded. We, by and large, are to the person very proud.”

More than twenty feet of water covered Bay Saint Louis. There were, the Mayor told me only fifty homes out of forty-five hundred that were not completely destroyed. Today, the city is back. While I was there, there was street festival along the rebuilt waterfront. A truck drove around delivering bags of ice to keep drinks cold. A decade ago, you need ice here just to survive.

The wounds Katrina left behind have healed. There are of course still scars, an overgrown slab of concrete where a house once stood. But driving through the city you would never know what happened here a decade ago. The mayor says, this rebirth would never have been possible without the Federal Government, FEMA, and private donations that allowed Bay Saint Louis to build back better, stronger, and more resilient.  If there is a next time, Fillingame says they are far better prepared.

Last year, the city’s new marina opened. It was, Mayor Fillingame says, the “final piece” to the resurrection of Bay St. Louis. “We had a big grand opening and basically right then we kind of declared an end to the war. We declared an end to the war of Katrina and it had been fought in literally thousands of battles. Every individual home had their own battles. It was a battleground of its own. The city was a battleground.”

And now, the mayor told me, Katrina is in their rear view mirror. “Most people in Bay Saint Louis want it there and most people don’t like telling the story of Katrina. It was a bad chapter.”

Jesse Shaffer lived through not one but two bad chapters. Shaffer and his family lived outside New Orleans. When Katrina hit, ten feet of water flooded their neighborhood.  He and his neighbors rebuilt. “You live here and you don’t want to move away. You lose all your friends,” Shaffer said.

And not far from them, almost in their shadow, a massive concrete and steel flood wall was constructed to keep the water out in case it happened again.

Problem was, the Shaffer’s neighborhood was just outside the wall. And seven years to the day after Katrina, it did happen again. Hurricane Isaac. The old clock on the mantle stopped at five minutes to three in the morning when the water rose above it. This time, it wasn’t ten feet of water. It was fourteen feet. But unlike Katrina, the people here didn’t evacuate for Isaac. “It wouldn’t be, couldn’t be as bad,” they thought.

That night and part of the next day, Jesse Shaffer and his son saved lives. “A friend of mine had a boat on the other side of the wall and we launched it and we just started trying to get as many people out as we could.” “So how many people did you rescue?” I asked. “Between me and my son one hundred and twenty people. Two guys were floating on a spare tire.”

The Shaffer’s don’t live here anymore. Virtually no one else does either. Of the seventy-five or so homes in the neighborhood Shaffer says only one is being lived in.

What you see now along the Gulf Coast is a testament to the human spirit, a testament to our ability to endure and prevail. Communities were rebuilt. Lives were saved. A decade after the Katrina nightmare, the page has turned. But, make no mistake, the book is not yet closed. Everyone will tell you there is still much work to be done. Some of the hardest hit areas of New Orleans are far from healed, but there is progress. And for the people of Mississippi and Louisiana, they are starting to believe the storm has finally passed.