After a Dozen Hurricanes and 40 Years, Familiar Dangers With Higher Stakes

Years ago, banks and other businesses gave customers paper hurricane maps so that they could plot the latitude and longitude of developing storms. Now nearly everyone is glued to their phones and computers, watching projected storm tracks play out in real time.

Still, many things have remained the same: Hurricanes often confound the forecasters. They don’t totally surprise anymore, but they drift past expected targets and, worst of all, they sometimes quickly become much stronger than expected. Harvey dropped much more rain than anticipated and Irma broke records for velocity as it clobbered islands in the Caribbean and in the Bahamas. And hurricanes still kill people.

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A man waded through floodwater in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in September 2005. Credit Vincent Laforet/The New York Times

Grocery store shelves still get cleaned out quickly. Gas stations run out of fuel and then close rather than figure out a way to resupply. People in evacuation zones refuse to leave their homes. They don’t know what to do with their pets. They have to stay close to aging parents. They say that driving a car on crowded roads is more dangerous than a hurricane. They can’t stand the turmoil at the airports. And, finally, they just don’t want to go anywhere.

Irma reflected all of that.

Hurricanes have their own style, too. Hurricane Katrina was so weak when it hit the coast of Florida that I almost didn’t fly down to Miami from New York to cover it. Hurricane Wilma in 2005 was supposed to savage Naples, on the west coast of Florida. But it struck a glancing blow there, strengthened as it charged across the watery Everglades, and hit Miami hard. Hurricane Charley, in 2004, began as a small storm, zigged and zagged around Florida and ended as what was then the second-costliest hurricane in United States history.

There may be many ways to report on a hurricane, but after I found myself caught by surprise in Hurricane Gilbert in Jamaica in 1988, I settled on mine. Don’t follow a hurricane; get ahead of it. When nearly everyone else has been running from a storm, or waiting for it to land, I’ve tried to run in, often on nearly empty airplanes.

It is always an uncertain process of best guesses and unexpected results. Katrina, one of the epic disasters of our time, seemed to be heading toward Mobile, Ala. But I ended up driving to New Orleans, getting there just as the wind was picking up and in time to start interviewing people as they stood in line with bundles of clothes and suitcases to take shelter in the Superdome.

I ended up spending a week at the city’s emergency operations center, getting the ultimate lesson in how quickly and frighteningly things can spin out of control. That didn’t happen this weekend at the City of Miami’s emergency operations center, a squat, thick-walled building at Police Headquarters in downtown Miami.

But it told another story. It was near Biscayne Bay and sits on the edge of hundreds of millions of dollars — maybe even billions of dollars — worth of condominiums and office towers. The glamorous buildings, with grand views of the bay and, in some cases, rooftop pools, had not existed when I covered Hurricane Andrew.

On Sunday, I drove around in the storm with officials in a heavy Miami police sport utility vehicle. Two construction cranes had already buckled. Strong gusts began to hammer us after almost an hour in the streets. The gusts might have been as strong as 80 to 100 miles an hour. We could barely shove open the doors on the S.U.V. We had to crouch to stand up on the sidewalk. I thought of New Orleans, where the first flooding I saw was in the Lower Ninth Ward. People were swimming and paddling boats to safety. But the disaster seemed contained. And then it wasn’t, and New Orleans filled with water. We were luckier in Miami. The worst disaster never came.

Hurricane Irma was one of the strongest hurricanes ever, with one of the biggest spans. Its cost is going to be staggering. No one knows for sure how to explain it, or whether to expect similar monsters. Mayor Tomás Regalado was born in Cuba and moved to Miami in 1962 when he was 14 years old. He has been through lots of hurricanes, but he sees Irma as more than a weather event. “We need to seriously look at climate change,” Mr. Regalado said. “Hurricanes like Irma don’t come out of nowhere.”

Irma’s story may be one of a monster storm that could have been even worse and the maddening vagaries of storm forecasting. But it’s also a reminder of something that will live with us far into the future: With climate change providing fuel for ever-more-powerful storms, and more and costlier coastal development — like that real estate wonderland near Biscayne Bay — the stakes are rising exponentially. And if Irma was not the catastrophe it could have been, another storm with another name almost certainly will be.

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