I lived on the west coast of Central Florida throughout the 1990’s. Almost every year, from late spring to mid fall, severe storms seemed to be an almost weekly event. Bad weather was so frequent that it was imbedded into the area’s culture. The locals maintained running jokes about how easily out-of-towners could be identified by their perpetually flashing hazard lights and their scrabbling for emergency supplies in supermarkets.
I was an out-of-towner initially, too. I still remember wondering what made the locals seem impervious to the fear that any rational person should experience when the weather turned so aggressively. I eventually came to understand that, by way of constant exposure, they had become acclimated to sights, sounds, and natural dangers that might feel nightmarish to the unfamiliar.
The locals were conditioned to expect awful weather, and being prepared to deal with it was as routine as setting the alarm clock in preparation for the morning. This meant that they would take inventory and stock up on any lacking emergency supplies in late winter or early spring when such supplies were plentiful. When a big storm would hit, these supplies would be depleted, of course. But the supplies were replenished in an orderly fashion once the worst had passed. As bad as the weather sometimes was, you almost never saw a local panic.
I now live in Northeast Florida. Severe storms are much less frequent here. However, last fall we were threatened with the potential of a pretty hearty hurricane. This storm was nothing compared to some of the weather that I witnessed in the 90’s, but the reaction to this storm by the inhabitants of this corner of the state was nothing short of pandemonium. The swift devolution of otherwise civilized adult humans into fight or flight inspired animals was stark and, honestly, terrifying.
Even as the news rolled in that the storm was going to make landfall, it was as if people were in denial. It had been so long since a real storm hit that everyone assumed it would dissipate or diverge like so many others. When the first bands of serious wind and rain arrived, many responded like beached sharks; flailing so violently and viscerally to escape perceived danger that they caused harm to themselves and anyone that tried to help.
Fortunately, the storm I’m referring to ended up not being as bad as it could have been. Although I’ve witnessed much worse weather in my life, the situation was exceptionally disturbing. Not because of the storm, but because of the reaction and behavior of those that took too long to consider the consequences of what was bearing down on them.
What ultimately differentiated the Central Floridians from the Northeast Floridians? Preparation.
I believe that because Northeast Floridians hadn’t seen a serious storm in many years, they grew complacent. Through conversations with my neighbors, I know that many had stocked up on emergency supplies immediately following the last big storm because the event had revealed their lack of preparation and made them feel helpless. But much time had passed since then. Over the years, their canned goods, bottled water, and fuel were displaced by pool floats and beach tents. When a real threat became imminent, many people found themselves unprepared yet again.
What concerns me today is that it has been a very long time since our last economic storm. Even though clouds appear to be gathering, it is possible that there may be some time before the next storm hits. Or maybe there won’t.
Many were well-aware of every position within their investment portfolio in 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012, determined not to get caught off guard again. But much time has passed. As the Central Floridians know, the time to take inventory is in the off-season. Once the storm makes land, those that find themselves unprepared panic. Reason and civility tends to evaporate quickly under such stress, and the results can be truly awful.