Al Cialella is from Philadelphia, where he always thought of "sturdy" oak trees as symbols of strength. He never knew that in central Florida, the water table is so close to the surface that oak trees have unusually shallow roots. But then Hurricane Charley ripped through Kissimmee three weeks ago, knocking down oaks like bowling pins. Now he knows.
It may seem strange to describe a natural disaster as a teaching moment, but as the outer bands of Hurricane Frances began pelting Kissimmee on Saturday morning, some of Charley's lessons already seemed to be taking root.
Locals who had ignored warnings about Charley were now armed with flashlights, duct tape, plywood and generators. At least eight times as many residents had taken cover in emergency shelters in anticipation of Frances. Here at the expected intersection of the two storm paths, newcomers who would not have known a 100-year floodplain from a 100-yard dash before Charley's approach from the southwest now sounded like seasoned hydrologists preparing for Frances to arrive from the southeast.
Many Florida residents come from elsewhere -- usually the Northeast, the Midwest or Latin America -- and many go decades without seeing the dark side of the Sunshine State. But this fast-growing suburb near Disney World is getting an education in the Florida not mentioned in brochures for the "happiest place on Earth." Best known as the gateway to the Magic Kingdom, featuring a surreal strip of motels and T-shirt shops shaped like medieval castles and giant oranges, Kissimmee was in line for a second massive storm as Frances approached.
"I think Mother Nature taught us a few lessons about Florida last month," said Cialella, a deputy fire marshal here in Osceola County. "I have a feeling we're about to learn a few more."
The state of Florida is one of man's most successful rebellions against nature, a paradise made possible by air conditioning, bug spray and the world's most elaborate water control system.
But the most striking lesson of Charley, and of every other hurricane in Florida's history, is that nature cannot be controlled all the time, and that it is wise to stay out of the way.
Tad Stone, the county's public safety director, said that only a few hundred residents used emergency shelters during Charley, which caused almost $300 million in damage to the county.
His department had to assist hundreds who neglected to store provisions, ignored warnings about downed power lines and injured themselves trying to fix their roofs. He is worried that Frances could cause devastating flooding and that debris from Charley could turn into deadly missiles during Frances, but he thinks his community is substantially more prepared.
"These people are not from Florida, and they didn't know how to deal with a hurricane," said Stone, one of the rare native Floridians in town. "But I think now maybe they're starting to get it."
Saturday morning, more than 3,000 people were in Kissimmee's emergency shelters. Few had ever seen a hurricane before Charley or knew to pronounce it "hurrikin," as a native Floridian does. But most of them were determined to make sure they never weathered another storm at home.
Cindy Elliott, an Ohio native who works in Disney's costume-buying department, recalled how Charley shook her duplex, paralyzing her with fear. Martha Parra, a real estate agent from Colombia, is still haunted by the whoosh of a tornado that passed by her apartment complex while she was huddled with her daughters in a closet. Frank Farmer, originally from South Carolina, was hospitalized for heatstroke during the power outages that followed Charley.
Michelle and Mark Patton, who moved to Kissimmee from Indianapolis in 2002, stayed home when Charley came because they thought meteorologists were making a big deal about nothing -- until they watched an oak tree blow over like a twig, a transformer explode and a shingle crash through their window.
This time, Elliott, Parra, Farmer and the Pattons all decided to wait out Frances in shelters.
"We just didn't understand the sheer power of the thing," said Mark Patton, a construction worker who plans to move back to Indiana. "Now we know the price you pay for paradise."
But if nature used Charley to teach a lesson about wind and the dangers of rickety housing, Frances may provide an equally brutal lesson about water and the dangers of living in flood-prone areas. Kissimmee was forecast to receive as much as 18 inches of rain over the next day or so, much more than its canals and storm drains were designed to handle. Most of Osceola County -- like most of South and central Florida -- was built on a floodplain.
Kissimmee sits near the headwaters of the Everglades ecosystem; it was founded in the 1880s by Hamilton Disston, a Philadelphia saw manufacturer who tried to drain the Everglades with canals.
Today, the water management system that Disston began in central and South Florida includes more than 1,100 miles of levees and canals. It is the most sophisticated network of its kind, featuring pumps with engines so powerful they had to be cannibalized from nuclear submarines. But Roberto Fabricio, a spokesman for the South Florida Water Management District, warned that it will not be able to handle Frances. "This is going to saturate the system, no question about it," Fabricio said.
Osceola County Chairman Ken Shipley has watched the area's population double in the past 10 years, with dozens of new subdivisions in low-lying marshlands. He announced Saturday that residents in lowlands and mobile homes were welcome to stay during Frances but that they should make sure their next of kin had copies of their wills.
Shipley, a Tennessee native who killed a pygmy rattlesnake in his yard after Charley, warned that Mother Nature will get revenge. "She doesn't care if the state gave you a permit to build a subdivision in a wetland," he said. "She still thinks it's supposed to be a wetland."
Shipley suggested that Charley and Frances could end Florida's seemingly perpetual real estate boom, persuading families such as the Pattons to head back north.
"Naw," scoffed his fellow commissioner Atlee Mercer. Mercer noted that 300 families have bought houses in Osceola County in the weeks since Charley.
After complaining about her experience with Charley and the indignities of her evacuation for Frances, Elliott suggested that she would consider leaving her Disney job and her Florida lifestyle to return to Ohio. And then she thought about what she had said.
"Oh, I'll never leave," she conceded. "This is no fun, but it beats the snow and ice."