At midday the barrier island in Vero Beach has the weird feel of a place quickly and angrily abandoned. Poking around debris-lined streets among spray-painted signs all denigrating a certain Jeanne, I'm hoping not to be mistaken for a looter by a cop—or, worse yet, by an armed Floridian homeowner. Wind gusts drive intermittent sheets of rain as a few stragglers throw a last suitcase or heirloom into a car before scurrying over the causeway to the mainland. Jeanne, you see, is a major hurricane, already a killer of thousands in Haiti. This thin strip of land is surely not the place to be when she arrives in full force tonight.
The ghost town air of shuttered, boarded-up, duct-taped houses and condos prevails everywhere but the oceanfront, where visitors keep arriving. Police officers try to shoo them away. "We're under an evacuation order here, folks," they announce. "Don't even think about it!" a patrolman bellows at a pair of daredevils who drive up with surfboards strapped to their car. But as soon as the officers move off to another public beach, more hurricane pilgrims appear. Mostly they're locals who've come to curse at fate, or to ponder nature's cruel sense of humor, or maybe just to wearily accept what's coming.
Three weeks ago a cyclone named Frances tore into central Florida on a nearly identical path. That hurricane, the second to hit the state in the unlucky summer of 2004, left several feet of water in Greg McIntosh's house. Turning his back to a hard blast of wind, he wonders what Jeanne—storm number four—has in store.
"It's like in basic training when you get into your bivouac and then the sergeant blows the whistle and you have to go another ten miles in the dark," says McIntosh.
David Mitchell, a recent transplant to Florida, leans on the railing above a seawall and stares over the rising sea. Monstrous swells crash into a breakwater a few hundred yards offshore.
"I've only been here four months, and in that time, two hurricanes," he says. He'll soon retreat to his apartment, where he has taped over the windows, even though that's not likely to offer much protection from windblown debris. "I guess when you live in Florida, it's just something you have to get used to."
Not just Floridians—anyone in the eastern coastal regions of the United States and Central America, as well as the entire Caribbean, is getting used to it. Since 1995 the Atlantic has been producing powerful hurricanes at a hyperactive pace, doubling that of the previous quarter century. If few in the U.S. noticed at first, it was because atmospheric conditions mostly kept the abundant storms out at sea or headed elsewhere. But the winds shifted in 2004.