By Donna Leinwand Leger, USA TODAY
KEY WEST - Six years, nine months and 30 days have passed since Hurricane Wilma came ashore with 125-mph winds near Naples, Fla. - the longest period the nation has gone without a hit from a major hurricane since the government began keeping records in 1851.
As the USA nears 2,500 days without a Category 3 or higher hurricane, weather and disaster experts worry that Hurricanes Wilma, Katrina and Rita will become hazy memories and Americans will go soft, letting their batteries die, misplacing their flashlights and forgetting their emergency plans.
"Nobody thinks it's going to happen. Nobody prepares," says Scott Pinto, 48, food and beverage manager for Historic Inns of Key West.
Pinto knows firsthand the damage a hurricane can do. The massive flooding in Key West from Wilma's storm surge is documented in pictures on his iPad.
The storm killed five people and caused the largest disruption of electrical service in Florida's hurricane-plagued history. More than 3.5 million homes and businesses lost power - some for more than two weeks.
Wilma wreaked $21 billion in damage, making it the fourth-costliest hurricane in U.S. history, behind Katrina (2005), Ike (2008) and Andrew (1992), the National Hurricane Service says.
Even so, Pinto admits that with only three cases of water, five candles and a pack of batteries, he's far from prepared for hurricane season, which extends into November in the USA. He's certain he's not the only one.
"We have so many transient people down here. The population changes yearly," he says. "They don't realize what's going to happen."
Hours matter when a storm with 100-plus-mph winds is bearing down on population centers. That being the case, hurricane-prone states along the Eastern Seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico have aggressive campaigns to urge their residents to stay alert and get prepared - even if those hurricane supplies stay packed in garages and closets for another year.
"Personally, I'd like to continue that streak, but eventually that luck is going to run out," says Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman for the National Hurricane Center. "It's not a matter of if, but when."
As if channeling Feltgen, Tropical Storm Isaac, with 40-mph winds, moved west Tuesday toward the islands of the Caribbean. Forecasters predicted the storm would move over the eastern Caribbean by Thursday and become Hurricane Isaac. The forecast puts it on track to possibly hit Florida during the Republican National Convention, which begins Monday in Tampa.
When a hurricane does strike, many people without evacuation plans end up in shelters with insufficient supplies or no place for beloved pets. Sometimes the individual economic toll doesn't become apparent until well after the storm passes: Many learn too late that their insurance doesn't cover flooding, which often does more damage than the devastating winds.
Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, says he frequently encounters people who wished they had more insurance and supplies. "Some folks are going to get ready," he says. "Some people will wait for the absolute last minute."
FEMA is helping businesses - including banks, groceries and hardware stores - devise plans that would allow them to open more quickly after a storm as a way of returning normalcy to a community hit by disaster.
"It's easy to become complacent, but we have to snap ourselves out of it," says Rick Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center. "I implore people to find out today if they live in a hurricane storm surge evacuation zone. You need a plan. You don't want to be figuring that out when the hurricane is on your doorstep."
Last year's Hurricane Irene "was a reminder that we're vulnerable all the way to New England," Knabb says. "You have to prepare all the way from Brownsville (Texas) to Maine."
In Louisiana, where Hurricane Katrina killed 1,577 people and caused catastrophic damage in 2005, hurricane preparedness is infused with new intensity, says Kevin Davis, director of the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, an agency that didn't exist before Katrina. Davis' staff trains several times a week and meets with local officials to ensure they have plans in place.
After Katrina, a Senate report criticized the state's preparations and faulted then-governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin for moving too slowly to evacuate the city. More than 70,000 people stayed behind, and many took refuge in an ill-prepared shelter at the Superdome.
Some city and state officials said residents willingly stayed behind because they had weathered storms before. Gulf Coast residents played "hurricane roulette," the Senate report said.
That complacency ended with Katrina, Davis says.
"We are constantly promoting, reminding people of the potential of a storm hitting Louisiana. We do that every day of the week," Davis says. "Preparedness is pretty much a way of life in Louisiana. It's completely changed since Katrina."
Don't bank on outlooks
Since hurricane season began June 1, three hurricanes and six tropical storms have formed in the Atlantic.
Two of the tropical storms, Beryl and Debby, came ashore in Florida. Debby caused massive flooding in the Florida Panhandle and killed seven people.
Forecasters at Colorado State's tropical storm prediction center expect a slightly above-average hurricane season: 14 named storms, including six hurricanes. In a revised forecast issued Aug. 3, the team predicted a below-average chance that a major hurricane would strike the USA. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center revised its forecast Aug. 9 to 12 to 17 named storms, including five to eight hurricanes of which two or three could be major.
Once the wind of a tropical cyclone reaches 39 mph, it becomes a named tropical storm. At 74 mph, it becomes a hurricane. A major hurricane - Category 3 or above - has wind speeds of at least 111 mph.
Weather experts say the number of storms in a season does not predict the likelihood of a catastrophic storm striking the USA. Hurricane Andrew, one of the strongest and most devastating storms in history, struck Florida nearly 20 years ago on Aug. 24, 1992, during the least active hurricane season in nine years.
"You can't use the seasonal outlook as a guide for preparation," Feltgen says. "It only takes one."
Last year, the third-most-active season on record with 19 named storms, only Hurricane Irene, a Category 1 storm, hit the USA. Before that, Hurricane Ike in 2008 fell just 1 mph short of Category 3 when it clobbered Galveston, Texas, with 110-mph winds Sept. 13.
"It's not that we haven't had major hurricanes. It's just that they've either stayed over water or hit our Caribbean neighbors," says Chris Vaccaro, spokesman for the National Weather Service.
Knabb emphasizes that focusing only on wind speed can lull people in hurricane zones into complacency. Tropical storms and Category 1 and 2 hurricanes can cause massive damage with excessive rainfall and storm surge.
Hurricane Irene traveled across Puerto Rico as a Category 1 storm Aug. 22, then came ashore Aug. 27 on North Carolina's Outer Banks. The storm moved out to sea but made landfall again, this time as a tropical storm, in southeastern New Jersey. By the time it dissipated Aug. 29, it had caused massive flooding in the Northeast, killed 41 people and knocked out power to 7.4 million people. Damage estimate: $15.8 billion.
"Water is the thing that tends to kill the most people," Knabb says.
'If you're wrong ...'
Disaster experts say now is the time, while the weather is good, to create a hurricane plan, review insurance policies and stock up on hurricane supplies. The federal government posts a to-do list at READY.gov.
"It's very easy for human nature to think it's not going to hit me," Feltgen says. "It's denial. They think, 'I've been here X number of years. I haven't had one. I think my luck is going to continue.' If you're wrong, it could cost you and your family."
In Florida, the most hurricane-prone state, the preparation and way of life that come with these storms is new to thousands. In 2010, more than 600,000 new residents moved into the Sunshine State, Census Bureau data show.
Beryl and Debby, the tropical storms that hit this season, jarred Floridians back to their hurricane reality, says Bryan Koon, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management.
"You tend to forget how bad, how disruptive and how deadly they can be," Koon says. "It was a good wake-up call for the state to realize that hurricane season is here. Four storms and we've been hit by two of them."
FEMA's Fugate says federal disaster-relief teams that drill all year long and respond to other types of disasters are prepared - despite not having to deal with a major hurricane. Hurricane Irene, he says, tested their skills, as did a heavy tornado season in the Midwest and South.
"It was a challenge for us. Normally, we deal with a couple of states," he says. "With Irene, we literally put teams into states from North Carolina to Vermont. And trust me, a lot of people in Vermont thought they didn't have to deal with tropical systems."
The Waffle House model
Fugate points to the Waffle House chain as a paragon of preparedness. He says he noticed after a series of disasters that Waffle House "got open earlier than everyone else." He began to gauge the severity of the disaster by the state of the restaurant.
"If it's a limited menu, there are significant impacts," Fugate says. "If you go to a community and the Waffle House was closed and couldn't open, it's a pretty dire situation."
Waffle House has a hurricane team and prepares throughout the year for hurricane season, says Pat Warner, vice president and director of culture for the chain. Waffle Houses are open 24 hours.
"A big part of our culture is staying open," Warner says. "We want to be there for our customers and for our associates after the storm. We see ourselves as providing a service to the community. ... A lot of times we're the first hot meal people have."
The restaurant chain's hurricane planning includes staging generators near areas likely to be struck and lining up vendors outside the area to supply ingredients, he says. The company creates emergency menus for each stage of the recovery. Restaurant operators get a checklist that tells them step-by-step what to do once a named storm is forecast.
Warner says, "You can't wait for the storm to be barreling down on you before you do it."