As models tracking Hurricane Irma inched closer and closer to Northwest Florida last week, residents watched and waited anxiously to see whether the monster Category 5 storm would be the one to break the region’s 12-year hurricane-free lucky streak.

Ultimately, the storm weakened over Cuba before carving a path of destruction over Key West, up the west coast of the Florida peninsula and into Georgia. Northwest Floridians breathed a sigh of relief, but local officials say it’s only a matter of time before the Panhandle once again is in the path of a major hurricane.

'It only takes one storm'

The last major hurricane to impact the Panhandle was Hurricane Dennis, which made landfall as a Category 3 storm near Navarre on July 10, 2005, merely 10 months after Hurricane Ivan made landfall in Gulf Shores, Alabama, in September 2004.

Together, Ivan and Dennis caused more than $20 billion in damage, mostly to the Florida and Alabama Gulf Coasts, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Since then, Northwest Florida has escaped hurricane seasons largely unscathed. And the state of Florida as a whole went an entire decade without seeing a hurricane until Hurricane Hermine made landfall east of St. Marks as a Category 1 storm in 2016. That was followed by Hurricane Matthew, which scraped the east coast of Florida soon after.

And so far this year, Northwest Florida has mostly escaped the paths of two major hurricanes — Harvey and Irma.

But despite the 12-year dry span, local officials continue to keep hurricane plans up-to-date and closely monitor the tropics. Don Shepherd, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Mobile, Alabama, said even though it’s been well over a decade since a hurricane has hit the region, things could easily change, especially as an above-average hurricane season boils over in the Atlantic basin.

“If you live anywhere along the coast, either the Gulf Coast and even up the East Coast, you should never, as you’re moving into hurricane season, be complacent,” Shepherd said. “You should always have a plan and be prepared. It only takes one storm.”

Coastline and population worries

If a major hurricane hits Northwest Florida this year, officials worry the damage could be even more catastrophic than in 2005 because of the surge in waterfront housing and condominium development.

Since 2005, Northwest Florida’s population has increased by double digits, according to data from the United States Census Bureau. Okaloosa County has grown by nearly 10 percent, Walton County has grown by 28 percent and Santa Rosa County has grown by 17 percent.

Officials fear the more crowded coasts could be disastrous if hurricane-force winds tear through the Panhandle.

“There would be significant damage because we have built up quite a lot along the coastline,” said Jeff Goldberg, director of emergency management for Walton county. “There was a storm surge in the Fort Lauderdale area that pulled a lot of sand up on the roadways, and that could definitely happen here as well. ... You can draw a lot of correlations from what they saw down there (during Irma). It can give you an idea of what we might can expect here.”

Shepherd, the meteorologist with NWS, said the population surge not only is concerning because of the increase in housing and construction, but also due to the thousands of newer residents who have never experienced a hurricane before.

“The thing is, over the last decade there’s a lot of new development along the coast, plus a lot of people who have moved in, so there’s a good number of folks that way who have never experienced a hurricane,” Shepherd said. “You’ve got people who don’t know what to expect, plus all the new developments. That’s a concern we always have, that people just don’t really understand the full impacts that could occur in their area.”

Alvin Henderson, public safety director for Okaloosa county, said those who have experienced hurricanes on the Emerald Coast before have a neighborly obligation to assist those newer residents who may not have been through one before.

“A lot of new people are living here now, and a lot of homeowner’s associations are developing community watch groups,” Henderson said. “I’m sure there are people who live in those areas who have been there through hurricanes and they should reach out to their own neighbors to help them prepare during hurricane season.”

Lessons learned

One of the benefits of a long dry spell is that it has given emergency management officials plenty of time to prepare for a storm. In Okaloosa county, Henderson, Chief of Emergency Management Randy McDaniel, County Administrator John Hofstad and Okaloosa County Commission Chairman Carolyn Ketchel have spent years planning for worst-case scenarios by drafting emergency plans and updating technology to help residents prepare for when — not if — a storm hits.

Hofstad, who lived through Hurricanes Erin and Opal in 1995 and Ivan and Dennis in 2004 and 2005, said advances in technology have greatly increased emergency officials’ ability to act quickly and pre-emptively as storms begin to form.

“The key difference from today versus the mid-2000s versus the mid-1990s is that everybody’s got a smartphone,” said Hofstad, who added that Okaloosa County has a “Ready Okaloosa” app they can use to send out quick alerts before, during and after storms.

County officials now have abilities they did not have one or two decades ago. They can monitor traffic cameras, redirect traffic one way or another and alert thousands of people at once about whether or not they should evacuate.

“During Ivan, our warning system could call 10 phones per minute,” McDaniel said. “Now we can call 1,000 per minute.”

Changes in weather forecasting also have bolstered officials’ confidence in tracking models, allowing them to get an idea sometimes a week in advance about which areas would need to evacuate.

“As technology advances, we’re starting to be able to look at a more finite area of impact,” McDaniel said. “We’re better at pinpointing those at risk and then building out at that level, accordingly, to better let people know what’s occurring.”