Real Life: It’s never hurricane season for Jacksonville

Jun 13, 2008

Palm Beach Post--June 13, 2008

By Emily J. Minor
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

In 33 years, Tom Merten has never put up hurricane shutters.

He’s never had his homeowner’s insurance canceled or filed a Citizens claim or wondered whether the storm water that leaked in through the attic crawl space last year is creating this year’s mold.

He does not own a giant plastic bin with a snap lid that’s stuffed with the staples of June-to-November Sunshine State living: i.e., Sterno canisters, bungee cords, flip-top cans of Beefaroni and a blue tarp the size of Maine.

“You mean a FEMA tarp?” he says. “No. We don’t have one.”

His idea of hurricane preparation?

“We do have a huge shopping bag full of batteries.”

Merten and his wife, Ila Rae, live in Jacksonville, where the only hurricane to strike in the past 118 years was Hurricane Dora in 1964.

“That’s it,” he says. “It’s just Dora.”

And Dora was a Category 2.

“My wife has talked about getting hurricane shutters,” Merten says. “And then I just hope she forgets about it.”

Maybe you rememberthose days?No flashlights. No 5 a.m. forecasts.

No canned beans.

If we try, maybe together as a team, we might remember those lazy days of summer, when plywood represented forts and skateboard ramps and children’s lemonade stands – not 48 hours hunkered down in a hot cave with neurotic friends and family, listening to roof tiles sailing through the air.

I think there was a time, pre-Frances, when blue was my favorite color.

Now the only thing the color blue does is give me hives.

Who knew a quarter-inch Tapcon screw could pack such an emotional punch?

One day, my editor and I were sitting in her office, having a “story meeting,”a pastime some might call gossiping, and she asked me something.

Is there a town in Florida that’s never had a hurricane?

Crazy broad, I thought.

But as a newspaper columnist, I am – at various times and to varying degrees – both dutiful and desperate. And it turns out there is just such a place, more or less.

Jacksonville, a big city right here on Florida’s east coast.

Before Hurricane Dora, which blew in directly from the east, the last storm to hit Jacksonville was in 1890.

At this point, I think all of us with good hearts should stop what we’re doing and knock on wood.

“It kind of makes me nervous when I hear on the radio that we’ve just begun hurricane season,” says Merten, who with his wife runs The Jenks House Bed and Breakfast near the river in Jacksonville. “Even though you know that we’re in kind of a fortuitous situation here.”

The situation being this:

The curvature of Florida’s coast – right there, where it indents to the west near the Georgia border – “is in an area where storms are usually undergoing a change in direction from west to north,” National Weather Service meteorologist Steve Letro explained last summer.

“Many storms which have missed (Jacksonville’s) area entirely would not have done so if our coastline were as far east as the South Florida coast.”

Merten is a tad more conversational with his scientific summation.

“After Daytona, the Florida land mass curves to the west, and a lot of those hurricanes just keep flying up north,” Merten says. “People don’t get too lathered up.”

The Mertens, though – who have lived in their brick house for 33 years and operated it as a B&B for almost four – would like something on the record, if you please.

They’ve had a few scares.

Why, once, when Hurricane Floyd was deciding what to do a few summers back, Ila Rae actually saw lines at the Home Depot. Imagine!

“People were going there for batteries,” she said. “But I never saw anybody getting plywood.”

And if you’re Tom and Ila Rae Merten, that’s fortuitous, indeed.

Their house has 75 windows.