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Long-Distance Storm Chasing

bread aisle at Wal-Mart, empty except a few loaves of rye
Bread got scarce in Merritt Island, Fla., as residents prepared for Hurricane Matthew this week. Photo by Rusty Clark.

In my experience, the best place to watch and appreciate a hurricane – or a blizzard, or any other natural disaster – is on a screen far away from the action.

That’s no surprise. The Weather Channel built an entire business model out of dressing daring young women and men in branded outwear and sending them into harm’s way. They get drenched, sandblasted or frozen so we don’t have to.

But that is not what I’m talking about. These days, there is such a dense network of traffic, beach and ski cams connected to the internet that you can get a look at practically any weather event from practically anywhere. Some of my friends even livestreamed video of a rare tornado that touched down a few weeks ago in the Salt Lake City area.

When the first snow of the season falls on the high passes of Wyoming or the forested peaks of Vermont or British Columbia, I like to take a look. On sultry summer days on the East Coast, I sometimes like to check in on the ski slopes of Chile and Australia. I have always appreciated winter; it’s just that as I get older, I appreciate it more when it is somebody else’s winter.

As Hurricane Matthew made its way toward the Florida coast yesterday, I tuned to the webcam at the Flagler Beach pier, which is just 14 miles down the sand from the beach house my wife and I have. Or at least we had it at the time I wrote this. If Matthew follows its projected path up the coast on Friday, and if the storm surge accompanying the storm reaches the 7 to 11 feet forecasted, there is a good chance there won’t be much left of the place by nightfall.

I may get my first hint that things are going sideways – maybe literally – when cable and internet service at the beach house go offline. I happen to be in New York this week, but I can access the beach home’s cable service over the internet via a device known as a Slingbox. If the Slingbox goes dark and stays dark, I’ll know that things are getting a little wild down there.

Even if we had been at our beach home this week, we would not be around to see what is happening. First of all, I’m too old to be an idiot about these things; I would have gotten us out of there earlier this week to avoid a possible long wait in traffic. Second, Flagler County authorities called for a mandatory evacuation of the barrier island at 6 a.m. yesterday.

Down in Fort Lauderdale, where my firm has an office and my wife and I have an apartment in a high-rise building, there is all sorts of TV and webcam coverage. The management of our office and condo buildings also send out frequent updates about storm preparations and conditions. With the intense winds of the storm’s eye passing reasonably far offshore late yesterday, it looked as though downtown Fort Lauderdale might be spared the widespread damage that occurred with Hurricane Wilma 11 years ago. By the time you read this, I will have gotten a look at the aftermath online.

There are some things you just can’t do long distance, however, which is why I am booked on a flight down to Fort Lauderdale at dawn tomorrow. Assuming that flight takes off somewhere close to schedule, by noon I should have a chance to assess our office and apartment firsthand. Then, depending on the situation at the beach place (which is about five hours’ drive to the north), I can head up there and wait for authorities to declare it safe for property owners to return and see what Matthew leaves behind.

I’m not going to waste a second feeling sorry for myself. Vacation homes can be fixed or replaced, and their owners generally have other places to live comfortably in the meantime. Many less fortunate people will have to deal with much more difficult situations. And if Matthew hugs the coastline for more than 200 miles, as forecasters fear it will as of today, the financial toll in property damage along my state’s heavily developed oceanfront will be staggering. Hurricanes are not rare in Florida, but Category 4 storms that maintain their strength by straddling the beaches for hundreds of miles are unheard of – until now. Nature never runs out of ways to surprise us.

So I will just watch from afar until it’s time to get up close and personal with Matthew, or at least his aftermath. And I will spare a thought for those poor souls (though, as meteorology aficionados, they are almost certainly having the time of their lives) getting soaked and sandblasted on the beach on behalf of the Weather Channel.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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