News & Updates


Paul Flemming: We thank our lucky stars and bet on the weather

September 4, 2009

Paul Flemming
Capital Ideas

Five years ago, Frances was bearing down on Florida’s Atlantic coast, three weeks after Charley’s sharp right turn into Punta Gorda.

The big one, and its grace note finale, of hurricane season 2004 was yet to come.

Ivan was already a hurricane when Frances made landfall, though it was still a thousand nautical miles east of Tobago. It would roar ashore with its eye over Gulf Shores, Ala., but its damaging winds and surge devastated the Florida Panhandle and most horrifically Pensacola. The 15-foot storm surge of Ivan pushed up and over Pensacola Beach and the coast of Perdido Key.

With the dawn of Sept. 16, the same day of landfall in the early-morning hours, I drove in after the danger of Ivan was gone, through the back highways of the Panhandle — Interstate 10, you’ll recall from Andrew West’s iconic photos of the Escambia Bay bridge collapse, was not an option.

Before I walked over 5 feet of sand inside the rooms of the Five Flags Inn, before I saw the wiped-clean foundations where homes once stood on Perdido Key and the heartbreaking high-water marks on homeowners’ walls, before I heard the harrowing stories of howling winds, rising waters and desperate efforts to save lives and property, I banked some of my most indelible memories of Ivan.

Pungent resin oozed from thousands of snapped treetops, the hundreds of square miles of planted pines bent in the direction of the onshore winds that lessened only hours before. It smelled like a turpentine factory, and the air was thick with flying, shifting clouds of love bugs that blackened my vehicle on traffic-free U.S. highways strewn with debris.

The day of Sept. 16, 2004, in the Panhandle was — for someone with a cooler of iced beer, a stove to make coffee, no property harmed and no loved ones hurt — the most beautiful weather I’ve experienced in Florida before or since.

With the lights out and the skies clear for a hundred miles all around, the night sky was magnificent.

The next morning, working from the newsroom of the Pensacola News Journal, I took a concerned call from a woman who’d made it through Ivan’s wrath OK. She’d lost her screened porch and some shingles. A neighbor’s tree was in her yard. A freezer of meat was going bad. But that’s not why she was calling.

She was most worried about the massive cloud she’d seen the night before. She feared it was a chemical leak, a toxic mist caused by the storm.

Did it cross the sky diagonally from northeast to southwest, I asked. Yes. Did it seem to rotate westward through the sky ever so slowly during the night? That’s right.

Ma’am, that was the Milky Way. Our galaxy.

Five years later, much has changed and, regrettably, much has not. There are still insurance customers battling for financial justice. There are still people reeling from injuries and loss. There remains a rush to develop the very waterfront property that someday will meet the same fate as those disappeared in Ivan’s surging waters.

The hurricane carnage for Florida continued in 2005. Since then, though, the state has been spared hurricane-force winds. Instead, in this month of highest historic hurricane activity, we continue to tumble dice hoping to continue our good luck with gambles we’ve made in the aftermath of those two years of hurricanes.

All of us, from inland to the coast, from the Keys to Jacksonville, share in the multibillion-dollar bet that it won’t happen this year. We are, all and each of us, the state’s largest property insurer with Citizens Property Insurance. We do back up $23 billion of catastrophe insurance, the bulk of which would be borrowed in the event it’s needed. We do back up the $415 billion in coverage under Citizens policies and the $1 billion annual shortage in premiums that computer models indicate it charges.

On that day of Ivan in 2004, my son was 3 months old. Last week, he started kindergarten.

He’s a lot like most Floridians, or at least how we act and how we construct policy.

He doesn’t remember it at all.

Paul Flemming is the state editor for Gannett’s Florida newspapers and You can reach him at or 850-671-6550.