Thanks, Andy

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Do we really have to sit still and take a pounding when an intense hurricane comes ashore? Or is it time to do something creative, like get out of the way?


If you've ever had the misfortune to be around an aircraft crash, there are certain aspects of it that are unforgettable. One is the smell: a disagreeable blend of fuel, oil, hydraulic fluid and wet upholstery, and a sour, metallic odor unique to bent, broken or burned airplanes. Although the wind carried off most of it, that's what it smelled like on the ramp at Charlotte Country Airport in Punta Gorda, Fla., on Saturday morning, August 14, 2004.

The destruction wrought by Hurricane Charley was a measure short of complete, but the distinction would be forgivably lost on the shocked survivors surveying the wreckage. I encountered one owner, whose T-hangar had been emptied of his prized airplane, sorting through bottles of aircraft wax and glass cleaner in the manner that numb survivors do to give their minds time to absorb what their eyes cannot believe.

Punta Gorda was but one devastated Florida airport among at least 35, the other victims including Arcadia, Lake Wales, Kissimmee, the Orlando area airports and even Daytona Beach, far to the northeast of Charley's landfall at Charlotte Harbor. By early in the week of August 15, it's not even immediately obvious if Punta Gorda is the most seriously damaged of Florida's airports but it's certainly bad enough.

Nothing New Under the Storm

Kendall-Tamiami Airport after Hurricane Andrew

Surveying what was left of the Punta Gorda ramp on Saturday morning, a thought occurred to me: I have been here before. Twelve years ago, in the wake of Hurricane Andrew -- an August, 1992 Category 5 storm -- I toured the ramp at Kendall-Tamiami Executive Airport, south of Miami. If anything, the destruction was more profound than I saw at Punta Gorda. At Punta Gorda, the wrecked T-hangars were largely in place, although demolished. At Kendall-Tamiami, some of the concrete hangar pads were literally swept clean of any evidence of metal structure or airplanes. Even weeks later, when I visited, the fences and tree lines were plastered solid with aluminum airplane scraps. What trees remained were stripped bare of leaves.

At Punta Gorda, there were downed trees but also many still standing with their leaves intact. If the winds in Andrew sustained as much as 165 mph, the velocity was probably less in Charley. Not that it matters much if that's your smashed up Cherokee or Bonanza with parts and pieces scattered to the winds.

The survivors of Andrew remained numbed with shock for many months after the storm and for all I know, they still are. But they were recovered enough to pass on one important lesson which I vividly remember and put to use myself last week: When confronted with a hurricane of any size, have a plan to fly the airplane out of harm's way. Over and over, owners conveyed this advice. Just get the hell out of the way.

Why, I asked those owners, had you not done that before Andrew struck? Simply put, no one knew. Because no Category 5 hurricanes had beached in Florida for decades and because everyone in Florida is from somewhere else, there was little living memory of how bad a bad hurricane can be. People in the path of hurricanes tend to be more accepting of reassuring advice than they are of frightening reality. If you're told that your hangar "is good for 120 mph," you're willing to believe it, without asking for any proof, any engineering data or even any historical validation of the claim.

In truth, Kendall-Tamiami Airport, in its 1992 state of development, hadn't been through a big blow, let alone one as intense as Andrew turned out to be. There was simply no frame of useful reference.

Owners in the path of Andrew assumed the hangars would stand so they lashed down the doors and hoped for the best. But as Charley once again proved, hope is the poorest of battle plans and a distant second choice to decisive, reasoned action.

Time To Get Out

That notion spun through my head early Wednesday morning when I awoke in a cold sweat worrying about the path of the storm, the house, the airplane and the hangar, in that order. The seasoned locals around here -- we live near and base the airplane at Venice, Florida -- appeared nonplussed by Charley's approach, something I found puzzling and alarming, given my experience with Andrew. Even late Thursday morning, only a tiny handful of houses had storm shutters and activities around Venice Airport seemed business as usual. It all reminded me of what the aircraft owners at Kendall-Tamiami described: group cluelessness based on lack of direct experience.

At the risk of overkill, I made plans to move the airplane to Georgia on Wednesday afternoon. This was complicated by the wildly improbable. I'd have to get the airplane secured in Georgia before Tropical Storm Bonnie arrived on Thursday morning and worse, one prog chart showed that Charley would also cross into Georgia by Saturday.

Illogically, that meant I was moving the airplane from the path of one hurricane into the path of two hopefully lesser storms. I found the calculus murky at best, disquieting at worst. But there was no time to reconsider so I launched for Tifton, Ga., and drove five hours back to Venice the following day. In the transparent clarity of hindsight, if confronted with the same decision again, I'd move the airplane to the Miami area: In the ultimate irony, Kendall-Tamiami would have been a perfect choice.

Thanks to a last-minute eastward jink, Venice was spared the wrath of Charley. Our crummy little, corroded T-hangar had its door rattled by 50-knot winds and driving rain, but it and the rest of the airport remained intact. Sadly, the lesson of Andrew was lost on many other owners based in Florida. Had they been with me at Tamiami a decade ago or listened to the owners whose airplanes were destroyed, I wonder how many would have chosen to fly their airplanes out rather than take their chances in tiedowns and hangars with unknown resistance to wind.

The usual argument against flying an airplane out of a storm's path is that it's inconvenient and expensive. And, especially in Florida, you never know where to take it. As a hurricane approaches, there's just too much to do to protect more important property such as homes and businesses. The argument is compelling but, if the post-Andrew test is applied, it's also hollow. With any hurricane, warnings are issued early enough to begin preparations well ahead of its arrival. Anyone living in hurricane country should have most of the prep done in May or June, before the season intensifies in August. The Tamiami owners told me that moving the airplane simply has to be built into the routine of storm planning in such a way that it can be done at the last minute, once the storm's path appears relatively certain. Admittedly, Charley's path shifted enough to make this difficult but it wasn't impossible, even if it took expensive airline tickets to make it happen.

Worse Every Time

As more people move into hurricane-prone areas, there's nothing to suggest that a storm even more fierce than Charley couldn't form in the Caribbean or the Gulf and follow the same path or worse, track in through Tampa Bay and toward Orlando. For general aviation interests, there may come a time when the insurance industry will balk or be unable to sustain back-to-back losses of this magnitude. That form of preparation that consists of waving the hand and declaring, "What the hell, it's insured," may soon pass out of fashion.

While it's true that the purpose of insurance is to protect owners against the kind of calamity Charley wrought, it's also true that insured and insurers have a common cause. It is in no one's interest to lie helplessly in the path of an approaching storm whose general direction may be known 72 hours or more ahead of time. The time may be arriving for active, aggressive loss prevention.

I'd like to see the insurance companies invest some meaningful time, effort and money in encouraging owners to move their airplanes out of harm's way, when practical and possible. That could include establishing networks of known airports that can accept storm refugee airplanes, organizing return flights and transportation and simply disabusing the pilot/insurance culture of the notion that coverage is there so that passive acceptance can be the norm.

When the extent of damage caused by Charley is known, I predict an interesting direct corollary in the housing insurance markets. There will come a dawning realization that people who choose to live in the path of dangerous storms -- and I am one of them -- will find it increasingly expensive and difficult to have insurers pay for lack of preparation and a stoic unwillingness to accept some responsibility to avoid or at least reduce the catastrophic.

And the argument for doing so is not just monetary. The emotional drain of losing a house is enormous, an airplane much less so. The effort of recovering is so staggering that in the end, the effort of organized, aggressive loss prevention will seem a trivial investment, given the potential return.

Those shell-shocked owners stumbling around the ramp at Kendall-Tamiami a decade ago taught me that lesson and I'm happy I never forgot it. If you need a reminder, look at our photos of Punta Gorda once more. At least some of that carnage can and should be avoided. If you hear anyone say, "Hurricanes here aren't that bad," or, "The insurance company owns it," you should know exactly what to do. And you can thank Andy and now Charley for the lesson.

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