Emily Falls Apart, But Could Get Organized Again

Tropical storm becomes a remnant; who's watching Florida's empty houses?
By: Kenric Ward | Posted: August 4, 2011 8:00 PM
Remnants of Tropical Storm Emily

Remnants of Tropical Storm Emily / Credit: weather.gov

Florida might still have a wet weekend, but the stormy predictions have dried up ... for now.

After stalling in the Caribbean and dumping boatloads of rain on the Dominican Republic, Tropical Storm Emily lost her punch Thursday. Once on track to graze Florida, she was downgraded to a tropical disturbance that appeared to be going nowhere Thursday night.

But the situation could change again over the next 48 hours as the National Hurricane Center in Miami cautioned that the "trough" still has some potential to regenerate on Friday or Saturday.

Florida Division of Emergency Management spokesman Bill Booher, speaking from a state meeting of local emergency managers in Tampa, said, "Everyone is ready to bug out of here on short notice if need be."

Earlier Thursday, Booher said that "at most, we're expecting a tropical storm," and he forecast that Emily would be mainly a "rain event." That could be a relief for parched areas of the state.

Then again, no one is wishing for a replay of Tropical Storm Faye, which deluged and flooded portions of Florida in 2008.

Floridians may consider Emily or her remnants an initial, and possibly wet, tune-up for what forecasters still see as a busy storm season.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates 12 to 18 named storms by Nov. 30 vs. an annual average of 11. On Thursday, NOAA upgraded its hurricane prediction from 6-10 to 7-10, with three to six of those ranked as "major" (Category 3 or above).

Colorado State University researchers forecast 16 named storms and nine hurricanes, of which five could be major.

Craig Fugate, chief administrator of the Federal Agency for Emergency Management, said in a statement earlier Thursday:

"As FEMA and our federal, state and local partners continue to closely monitor Tropical Storm Emily, it's critical that the public do the same.

"While Emily's path is still uncertain, we still want everyone to exercise an abundance of caution and take this storm seriously. It's still early in what forecasters predict will be a very active hurricane season," said Fugate, who headed Florida's Division of Emergency Management during the state's record spate of hurricanes in 2004 and 2005.

The last hurricane to strike Florida was Wilma, which smacked the state with Category 3 winds (111-plus mph) in 2005.

Since then, Florida has been hit with a whirlwind of home foreclosures, leaving a whopping 18 percent of the state's houses unoccupied, according to Census Bureau statistics.

That's 1.6 million empty dwellings -- a 63 percent increase from a decade ago. Lee County in southwest Florida leads the state with a staggering 30 percent vacancy rate, the Census Bureau reported earlier this year.

Foreclosed and abandoned properties could be a problem in a major storm, insurance industry spokesmen say.

"Vacant homes have a greater risk of fire, theft and vandalism losses," says Chris Hackett, director of personal lines policy at the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.

"Many homeowners insurance policies exclude coverage for certain losses if the home has been vacant for more than 60 days. It's a good idea for a homeowner to regularly check on an unoccupied dwelling," Hackett said from his Chicago office.

Booher added that in one respect unoccupied dwellings simplify the job of emergency managers.

"There aren't as many people to get out in an evacuation," he noted.

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Contact Kenric Ward at kward@sunshinestatenews.com or at (772) 559-4719.

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