Hurricane Ian And The Immortal Cub (Revised)

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Getting out of the way of a dangerous hurricane seems like a no-brainer, but it can be a nuanced, nerve-racking decision tree. As Ian bore down on the west coast of Florida Tuesday, it proved simpler for me than in the past. In 2017, we bugged out for Irma and I swore I’d never do it again. The traffic on I-75, the principle north-south route out of Florida’s west coast, moved at 20 MPH for several hundred miles, if it moved at all. It was tense. Gas was in short, difficult supply.

My friend Marty and I compared notes via cellphone as we both drove north. “Not doing this again,” was the shared sentiment. So I sent a text early Tuesday, 30 hours from Ian’s landfall. “Hey Marty. 2017 dejuvu. You evacuating?” Reply: “Not planning on it. You?” I said I was undecided, still had some shutters to put up and would reassess. I did that at 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday. I examined the new NHC track plot and read the discussion that the steering currents were light with a lot of wobble. I sensed Category 5 potential. Not doing that, either, so we loaded the car and headed north. When I flee a hurricane—this is fifth time for us in 20 years—I get as far away as practical to be out of the storm’s influence. That way everything from hotel rooms to gas to flashlight batteries are in normal supply. We alighted in Atlanta.

The airplane is a different story. I have argued in the past that moving an airplane out of harm’s way makes sense, but I’m not loading the Cub with two people and a dog and trying to fly any distance to an unknown fate. The airplane, frankly, is just not that important to me and it’s fully insured. If I owned a Cirrus or a 210, I could (and would) load it up for the escape plan. But I don’t. Improbably, the hangar and the Cub inside it survived at Venice, although I haven’t inspected it since as of Saturday, I haven’t returned to Florida. I’ll let ya know.

Perhaps as many as half the hangars on the field were not as fortunate, according to my friend Dave Wimberly, who bases his RV there. His airplane made it through, but many of the hangars failed in just the way we knew they would: the sliding doors peeled away and either collapsed onto the airplanes inside or opened the structures up to progressive failure. Some of the airplanes remained inside and may be undamaged. Many clearly are bent.

Photo by Dave Wimberly

I’ve seen this movie before. It was at Punta Gorda Airport 25 miles south on the morning of Aug. 14, 2004. Hurricane Charley had shredded the airport and virtually none of the old sliding-door T-hangars—same 1960s and 1970s vintage—were left standing. They had all failed for the same reason. The doors departed and exposed the interiors to wind loading. Impressively, one of the doors was wrapped around a concrete light standard like a pretzel. Just as impressively, a block of newer hangars stood intact, albeit peppered with missile damage from debris. Why the difference? The hangars were built to newer code and, critically, had bi-fold doors, not sliding doors that are simply unsuitable for a tropical climate. Bi-fold doors transmit the load to the rest of the structure rather than succumbing and turning themselves into unmoored sails. Such hangars also get about 15 percent more steel in diagonal bracing and closer centers for the cladding purlins. Yes, they are more expensive. But maybe that’s a worthy investment against having them destroyed by storms.

So in a sense, what we’re seeing here is climate Darwinism. This is an object lesson for all Florida airports, not just those on the coast. Older hangars with rusty steel and especially sliding track doors aren’t likely to survive even modest blows. Hurricane Ian was a Category 4, but it didn’t appear to generate Cat 4 winds at Venice. The highest recorded wind was 82 MPH, although it’s likely there were unrecorded higher gusts. Punta Gorda had 155 MPH. Might as well call that Cat 5. I haven’t heard of any significant damage at the airport, but I haven’t been there yet. My Cub partner has a hangar there and it appears untouched. Most of the hangars there were built after Charley wrecked the place in 2004 and are built to newer code.

Photo courtesy Ivy McGiver

Darwinism Part 2. News reports coming out of Punta Gorda show surprisingly little structural damage. Well, it’s not surprising to me because the city was hard hit by Charley and rebuilt to modern codes. The substandard buildings—including hangars—were weeded out by the harsh reality of a vicious West Indies cyclone. It won’t be the last. So much of hurricane survival turns on the vaguest variables and just dumb luck. Venice was in the northwestern outer eyewall—what the ancient mariners called the navigable semicircle—for about two hours. That meant the wind was out of the east and drove water out of the bays and Gulf and away from land. Had the track been 40 miles north, the reverse would have been true and the airport would almost certainly have been inundated, as Naples was.

(Sunday a.m. addition: Ivy McGiver flew into Sarasota Saturday to pick up her mom and passed over Venice on the way out. She sent me the photo above, which I have annotated.)

I have the feeling that Hurricane Ian will be another God storm, in the way that Andrew was in 1992. The damage is so extensive and so widespread that it will aggravate what Floridians who are paying attention should know. Real estate values and volume are totally out of balance with the ability to insure it against almost certain loss, building codes are still not what they should be because the construction lobby complains about higher costs and growth is out of control. Say what you will about climate change, the larger order effect here is that we’re just putting too many people and too much stuff in the path of major storms and not admitting how much it costs to build it properly. Just since 2017, when Marty and I bugged out for Irma, almost a million more people have moved to Florida, most clustering on the coast. Since Charley, it’s four million.

Not that it seems to matter much, given how flooding and wind damage seem to impact the interior and the opposite coast. People will have to accept how much it costs to build a hurricane-hardened house and that in certain areas—barrier islands—nothing should be built at all. The frugal trailer park retirement dream may just get scoured by the winds. I’m no longer shocked but appalled at the number of people who occupy such structures during an intense storm, including a woman who moved from Massachusetts six months ago, ignored an evacuation warning and spent six hours floating on a mattress.

My neighbor declined to evacuate which I consider about 50-50. We’re in a low-order flood zone that has never flooded, but that’s no reason to believe it never will. Marty told me weathering Ian was unpleasant. “I sure don’t want to go through anything worse,” he told me. Unfortunately, worse is almost certain to strike Florida. Again.

I’ve already made plans to be somewhere else.

I owe a special debt of gratitude to Kelly Leggette who allowed Val and I to stay several days at his fabulous FlyBoy hangar in Whitesburg, Georgia, and to friend Jeremy King for getting me up here. While we were stressed out on I-75, Todd Huvard found us further accommodations with Henry Lowe in Macon. What would the world be without such kind people to literally help us through the storm? I am humbled.

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40 COMMENTS

    • I became impatient while reading all the various opinions below about whether or not WE the PEOPLE owe some financial responsibility for those who chose to live in Hurricane Zones and are rich enough to own airplanes but are willing to hangar them in cheap hangars to avoid higher hangar fees…and then when they suffer loss… somehow want US to help bail them out of their own choices.

      FBO have insurance. If they had “hurricane proof” hangars they’d have lower insurance costs. So would lessors. But the cost of construction and maintenance of those facilities would mandate higher rental/lease fees.

      HEY FOLKS! GET OVER IT! Those who chose to live in Florida…NYC…or Paris France …do so AT THEIR OWN CHOICES AND EXPENSES. It is NOT up to the rest of us to protect them from hazards of their own choices. THEY can buy their own insurance…and WHERE I hangar MY airplane is considered by my underwriter when I buy MY insurance…. As it should be.

      It’s called “PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY”.

  1. On the personal level, I’m of course, glad to hear that your fared well during this disaster. On a social level, however, it appears that the criteria being used to assess the threat of weather disasters is inadequate.

  2. Paul, you have hit the nail squarely on the head. The biggest problem is that there are too many people crowding onto an isthmus that seems to be a magnet for hurricanes. And unfortunately, land developers and building contractors are willing to build and sell houses in areas where none should be built, and built to inadequate standards for the storms they face. The bad news is that Florida is not alone in that regard. The entire Gulf Coast is being lined with houses and resort properties catering to northerners who have no idea of the power of a cat 4 storm. Florida’s other problem is that, being al long narrow isthmus, there are very few roadways, and they are totally inadequate to handle a mass evacuation. A storm the size of Ian is large enough to envelop the entire state, so there are few safe havens to ride out a big storm by staying put. In a perfect world, government officials and developers/contractors would work out coherent rules about where and what to build. Unfortunately, we don’t live in anything approaching a perfect world. Keep that evacuation plan sharp and ready to go.

  3. The aerial photo of the Venice airport illustrates two important issues. First, as you said, the damaged hangars were the older units, while the newer ones did much better. Second, the most damage was suffered by the hangars at the end of the row. Wind, like any stress, concentrates at the edge of a solid. Historically, damage to rows of buildings like hangars is always greatest at the ends where the roof uplift is greatest. One thing I did find interesting was that there appears to be little damage to the open sunshade hangars, as you called them. With only a roof and no sides, the uplift pressure on that roof is much higher than an enclosed structure. I wonder what damage was suffered to planes below that roof. Your comment about the wind direction is also very important. As you point out, a variation of just a degree or two in the path could make a huge difference with regard to storm surge and wave action. Venice was on the clean side as we call it, where the water is driven away from the land and the wind velocity is less due to the fact that land causes surface friction. Venice was lucky this time. When hurricane Ike hit the city of Houston in 2008, the eye of the storm went up the ship channel and over downtown. As a result, the east side of the city suffered most of the damage, especially from the storm surge. The west side of town had mostly downed trees and power lines. No coastal flooding and very little storm surge.

    • The sunshade hangars were built around 2010, I think. They were built to a higher standard than the older structures. My impression is they have heavier steel (that’s not corroded) and the purlins my be on closer centers. I’m not surprised it survived.

      When I get on the ground, we’ll see if there’s any missile damage to the aircraft underneath. During Charley, the airplanes at Punta Gorda were exposed to 140 MPH gusts which will turn anything into a damaging missile. They showed it, too. Dents and scars everywhere on some of them. A Tomahawk had its tail twisted entirely off and it remained attached only by the control cables. A 210 had the ailerons turned to confetti, probably by flutter. That airplane may have been totaled.

      • “…steel (that’s not corroded)”… Ah, there’s the rub. I have lived in the comparatively DRY and NON=Saline climates of the western mountains most of my life. During my increasingly frequent visits to that sweltering, acid filled place you call “Florida” I’ve been VERY, VERY impressed with how rapidly steel structures corrode. Hangars with not all that many years standing, hydroswing or bifold doors, steel construction, thick concrete pads, and TREATED steel structure show corrosion where the darn things are fastened to the cement pad! That big cement/rebar constructed condo on the coast that crumbled and collapsed a few short years ago is an abject lesson for us all… Florida’s climate will triumph over engineering. All it takes is not-all-that-much TIME and EXPOSURE. Your Rapsody about new codes overlooked that fatal flaw that is, at best, not a permanent fix to the evil stew where you and millions of others reside.

  4. Funny you should say that. A couple of years ago, a couple of friends and I were sitting in a local hangar, sliding doors partly open, welcoming the oncoming summer storm and its cool air. As the cell crossed the field, we got ourselves treated to a microburst. It instantly took the sliding doors off their rails and one would have destroyed my friend’s 20-years-in-the-construction Lancair had he not stood there imitating Atlas, holding it off. The rest of us beat feet to the rear of the hangar, but with the doors now gone, the wind took the entire roof off and deposited it in pieces on the nearby golf course. In less than ten seconds it was over. After the cell blew the rest of the way across the field and the sun came out, we assessed the damage. We were drowned rats but otherwise unharmed. Two other hangars on the field, one with a bifold door and one with a hydraulic door, were also completely intact. A 150, tied we later discovered with a kid’s jump rope, tumbled about a hundred yards and was a total loss.

    • I had a similar experience in our hangar, but I got the slider closed before it de-tracked. But for three or four minutes from inside the hangar, I watched it rattle and lift in the track. The AWOS had the gusts around 40 MPH. A mere fresh breeze.

  5. > Real estate values and volume are totally out of balance with the ability to insure it against almost certain loss…

    The only reason people can afford to structure insurance in Florida is because government subsidies obscure the true risk. Every time a storm like this destroys property we all pay for it, either through higher insurance premiums, higher taxes, or both. How many people would build in these areas if insurance costs reflected the true risk?

    • “… How many people would build in these areas if insurance costs reflected the true risk?”

      Great observation. FWIW, it ain’t too much different from people building on the slopes of active volcanoes (like Mt. St Helens or Mt. Rainer in Washington (State) or in places (with actual topographic relief) at the foot of slumps, in flood plains, or on unconsolidated regolith (dirt) that is at an unsustainable angle of repose… i.e. likely to slide into the valley below with an otherwise survivable ‘shake’ from a moderate or light quake.

      Isn’t one purpose of Government (State or Federal) to protect us from our own foolishness???

        • Yes and no. Government should also protect us from the stupidity of others when the consequences of their actions negatively affect the rest of us. For instance, any “careless or reckless behavior” laws. The difficulty (and grey area) is in determining where the line is between individual freedom and the societal impacts of the freedom to make poor choices.

          In the case of hangars built to hurricane standards, I would argue that it should be a requirement that such be built in affected areas, and substandard ones should have to be rebuilt in, say, 10 years time. But the private individuals who use such structures should be the ones to pay for it.

          The individual freedom is whether to locate to a hurricane-prone region, and the government requirement is that structures at least be built to withstand the expected storms. I don’t live anywhere near FL (other than being on the east coast), yet my tax dollars are still going to pay for the rebuild of FL, so the least I would expect is that my tax dollars be spent wisely on storm-resistant buildings.

        • It will be interesting to see how well the public accepts unsubsidized insurance costs. And of course the federal government will be spending billions of borrowed dollars in the recovery effort. People love to rail against the government, until the wind and water comes for them.

  6. Glad you & yours came through OK, Paul. Obviously Kelly Leggette has an aviation connection, but is this also the case with the other folks mentioned in your italicized addendum? The reason I ask is that it’s so common for people in the aviation world to supply generosity when needed, for just about any reason you could think of.

  7. If people were logical, the only organisms in Florida would be alligators and manatees. On the other hand, if people were logical, we wouldn’t be flying small airplanes.

    This kind of goes back to Paul’s article about wearing a helmet while flying. If you wore a helmet, would you take more risks? If you have insurance, why not rebuild?

    • Yeah, I expect that there will be some changes in insurance; the old saw is that if you want more of a behavior you subsidize it, if you want less, you tax it.
      Coastal insurance isn’t cheap now, but it’s the cheapest it will ever be.

  8. An idea….

    Hurricane Air Force.

    Insurance companies would maintain a list of qualified pilots willing to volunteer to fly down and fly airplanes out of harm’s way. I’m retired and wouldn’t mind doing something like that to help folks out. I bet there’s a lot of other guys (both literal and figurative) who would be willing and able to help out. This would free aircraft owners up to take care of the family. No one argues that moving the airplane is the smart move. The issues of course are logistics and reality. Even if you had time and could move your own plane, you still need to get back down there – in monumental traffic – only to bug out in that same traffic back north. It’s plain which process should take priority. The family’s safety is paramount. But maybe some of us could pitch in to help. A quick flight down yonder, pick up the plane and fly it where the owner wants it flown. Then fly home from there and the owner can go get it at their convenience. I’m game. It’s an idea anyhow.

    • Bill, I had the same idea. There is a good fit between out-of-area pilots and rescue flights: there is no need for a difficult return to the danger area to evacuate the pilot’s family, and if the rescue flight arrives near their home then there is no difficult trip from rescue location to the pilot’s home.

      However, I could pretty quickly come up with five objections. I can’t see an easy way to overcome them with a structure which would scale:

      1. Skill vs task matching: how do you match up task of flying the rescue aircraft with a pilot who has the skill for that task? Trust me, you do not want me flying your twin-engine piston to safety.

      2. Trust #1: how does the plane owner get confidence that the rescue pilot can be trusted with their precious aircraft?

      3. Trust #2: how does the rescue pilot get confidence that the rescue aircraft is a condition which the rescue pilot feels is safe? This requires in part some trust that the plane owner has maintained the plane to the rescue pilot’s standards.

      4. Acceptance of some failure: As the Hurricane Air Force scales, there will be some failures. Some planes won’t get rescued as planned. Some pilots will wreck their rescue planes. Some rescue planes (and their owners’ sloppy maintenance) will wreck some rescue pilots. A form of insurance can turn this risk into premiums and payouts, sure. But you need to ensure that the reputation of the Hurricane Air Force idea does not get destroyed.

      5. Paying attention between crises: it is easy to think about disaster safety just before and after a disaster. It is harder to maintain attention in the long lulls in between. But that is exactly the right time to be dealing with objections #1-4 above.

      Personal knowledge and experience between individuals is one way to overcome those objections — but that is hard to scale.

      • Jim;

        All very legit concerns. How about this?

        1 Skill Vs Task Matching – pre qualification. This is why I mentioned the insurance companies. Either FEMA or a consortium of insurance companies keeps the lists. Of course if you’re insured you’re good for that type. Create a series of minimum qualifications. X hours in type… etc. Perhaps a competency check ride with a CFI generates a form then sent to the controlling agency. If I own and fly say a Cessna 182, I’d expect to be qualified for 150’s and 172’s as well. Not the other way round of course. Basically the controlling agency maintains the list – and each potential volunteers qualification.

        Trust 1 – being identified and verified – again by the controlling agency removes the ability to swipe an airplane. If we know who you are, we know where to look for the airplane.

        Trust 2 – This one is a biggie and a toughie. Rescue pilot shows up and the airplane isn’t in airworthy condition as determined by the rescue pilot – that pilot calls and is reassigned to another flight from that area. No one should ever fly an airplane they’re not comfortable with. The rescue pilot has to be the final word, but we all know there are “those guys” too. We need to emphasize this is a near emergency process; a pan pan flight if you will.

        Acceptance of failure. This is what GA is worst at . The owners insurance people have to be on board and the rescue pilot covered at least for liability. This IS a charitable undertaking after all. There ARE going to be accidents and incidents. The better the controlling agency plans for this at the outset, the better this plan would work.

        Between crises. I agree this is the time to do the work. The fleet needs to be reminded of qualification currency and such. Owners of aircraft in likely rescue zones need to be reminded to undertake repairs and maintenance so the plane is always ready. A network of potential refuges needs to be charted so when things hit the fan, there’s already a list of places to call to find out who has space out of danger’s path.

        So it would require a lot of work and it must have some form of controlling agency; whether that be a bunch of citizens running a website and volunteering , or FEMA, or even a shared effort by a bunch of Insurance companies. Somebody’s got to get it together and keep it together and ready.

        But I still think it’s a workable idea that could severely mitigate the GA impact of Natural Disasters that we could see coming.

    • How about a “sister airport” program? One or more airports out of the danger zone partners with an airport on the sandbar that is Florida. Volunteers offer to host families. The owners fly their own planes out of harm’s way. Volunteers also help evacuate families that won’t fit in Mom’s J-3. The local airport & FBO agrees to make arrangements to park the aircraft. It’s much easier to bug-out if a plan is in place.

    • Just FYI, I raised this with several insurance companies after Charley. No takers. One executive explained to me that the storm losses weren’t that much of an impact for them and were spread out among many companies. It didn’t even make a blip on the re-insurance market radar. Lloyds was non-plussed.

      Their real worry was high-dollar liability “bell ringers” associated with sponsoring loss prevention movements. They had the storm losses built into the spread sheet.

      Now this may have changed since 2004, but we haven’t seen much evidence of it.

  9. Pompei is an obvious example of a city built in a wrong place — in fact when you are in Naples and the volcano is cross, you get the sense that it too is in the wrong place. There is a lot of faith in the wind blowing in the right direction on the day.
    Most American cities and towns are very new, compared to Europe. Europe has many examples of places which have been abandoned for various reasons but, apart from mining ghost towns, there are relatively few in the States.
    New Orleans is a prime candidate to be abandoned because of flood and hurricane risk, and Miami is another, along with LA after a quake or three.

  10. Something is changing in hurricanes. When Andrew blew through MIA in 1992 and leveled several smaller airports clear to the ground with its winds, I was putting together CFI materials for the edification of future students and monitored the METARs, TAFs and NOTAMS as winds increased, services were taken out, and towers were evacuated, mostly at the last minute. Wind velocities reached into the high 90s. Checking the same sort of information for the Florida west coast this time I never saw winds exceeding 45 in the reports, and I suspect that towers and fields simply cleared out much earlier. But the damage in Sanibel Island and several other places seem to have come from extreme flooding. Is that west coast vs east coast, when you talk about Florida, or is the extra water load carried by modern hurricanes (see Houston and New Orleans for other recent examples) a change due to climate evolution?

    • I don’t think modern hurricanes are any different than those of 100 years ago with one exception: the number of intense hurricanes–Cat 3 and above–has a slightly higher incidence than even 20 years ago. It may may be due to the Atlantic Multi-decadal Oscillation, which is in a high period and may be aggravated by climate change. Near record ocean heat content spun up Ian, just as the models said it would.

      I think you’re underestimating wind-caused structural damage, even on Sanibel. Punta Gorda airport had a 155 MPH maximum gust. This is just screaming wind. I saw a picture of the new hangar blocks built after Charley. They were intact. Adjacent buildings, older, were flattened. There’s a lot of missing roofs and caved in walls in the Englewood/Northport/Punta Gordon region. They were in the northern eyewall for at least two hours.

      But the larger order effect here is the number of people and stuff we’re putting in the path of these storms. The more we do that, the more expensive and painful recovery will be. It’s untenable, really.

  11. IMHO, no matter where you live, you will have to deal with some type of negative weather. The local building codes do not always reflect the inherent needs to deal with their particular weather issues. It is incumbent upon the homeowner to properly assess the weather risks for their home or airport. Where I live you cannot build without the proper engineered roof snow load and you typically cannot build in flood zones unless you are willing to pay a structural engineer to design mitigation based on 100 year flood data. We also experience constant winds and/or gusts in excess of 110 mph. How do I know this? Simple our anemometer was designed to withstand 110 mph which we saw before it broke in pieces.

  12. I have some heavy duty ratchet straps that I use to help secure my hangar doors when there is an approaching hurricane. It seems that the doors are the first to fail and once the doors are gone the remainder of the hangar is much more susceptible.

    Strap and secure your doors!