Hurricanes and asphalt

Donna put a palm tree in my room.

No, not my sister Donna. Hurricane Donna. 

That was in 1960. I was 12 years old. We were living in Hollywood, which happened to be in Donna’s direct line of fire on its way from Cuba to New York. 

The palm tree in question used to live in our side yard. But sometime during that long, windy, scary night Donna broke it off like a matchstick and propelled it through our roof and into my bedroom. 

I wasn’t there. We had already evacuated to our landlord’s house – bigger, newer and presumably more tempest resistant than our rental.

I can only imagine how that night might have turned out if we South Floridians had been encouraged to pile into our 1950s-era vehicles and make tracks en masse for the Georgia border before Donna could catch us. 

Of course, that was before we had the benefit of a network of modern interstates  – which in turn brought millions of additional people to Florida, facilitated endless sprawl development, and thereby put even more people in harm’s way during hurricane season. Our Donna-damaged home in was just a few blocks away from where I-95 was even then under construction.

I only bring this up to recall that there was a time when hurricane evacuation in Florida meant getting people away from the coast or out of unsafe housing and maybe moving them inland a few miles to wait out the storm. If we hadn’t been in our landlord’s house we might have ended up in a school auditorium, a church or some other community storm shelter.

But, really, that’s so last century. 

Now the preferred method of evacuation seems to be scaring residents into their cars by the hundreds of thousands and stampeding them north. But last time we tried such a mass exodus from our narrow peninsula, last year during Hurricane Irma, it backed up traffic for miles and left uncounted hurricane refugees stranded on interstate highways in the middle of nowhere with neither fuel, shelter or succor.

Fortunately, Irma turned out to be not as destructive as anticipated. When Texas went the mass evacuation route, in 2005 ahead of Rita, thousands of people ran out of gas on the interstate and two dozen of them died.

One big problem with mass evacuations is the panic ripple effect. Of the nearly 7 million Floridians who took to their cars to escape Irma, only about half of them actually lived in designated evacuation zones. The rest presumably scared themselves into running. 

So how do we solve the problems inherent in mass evacuations? By reverting to the old tried and true model of designating safe, community-based hardened shelters?

Nah. Clearly we need to build additional traffic lanes so as to better disperse the flood of ‘cane refugees and thus more efficiently funnel them north. Another eight lanes ought to do the trick. Or maybe 10 lanes or 12 or 16…..

Yeah, more asphalt is just the ticket. 

Hence the multi-billion dollar plan recently approved by Gov. Ron DeSantis to run new extensions of Florida Turnpike toll roads through virgin landscapes along the western side of our narrow peninsula. 

Backers of the expansion repeatedly cited the need to provide more evacuation routes as justification. And, as a side benefit, if that means opening up hundreds of thousands of currently underutilized rural lands to new suburban and exurban development opportunities, then so much the better. What’s good for business – for the land speculators and developers – is good for Florida, right?

Of course, opening up that much new land for sprawl development will eventually mean that millions more Floridians may need to be stampeded to Georgia and points north every time a “Big One” looms on the horizon. Then, presumably, the politicians will be able to justify building even more lanes of asphalt at a cost of additional billions of dollars.

It is a vicious cycle that will never end. Good news for the land speculators and developers. Bad news for taxpayers and future hurricane victims. 

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