To celebrate the coming of hurricane season, here is another long piece. It was the hurricane season of 2004. Florida was hit by four hurricanes that year. Here’s my reflections of those events. Enjoy.
Perhaps one day someone will ask me what I did on my summer vacation in 2004. I will tell them that four major hurricanes invaded Florida, gobbled her up, had a good chew and spat her out, and I was there. Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne left Floridians with a big gulp in our throats and a thank-you on our lips for not destroying more than they did. We got whopped by Mother Nature not once but four times, and we acquired a whole new set of exotic terms for our vocabulary, words like “debris,” “tarp,” and “evacuate,” phrases like “category four” and “hunker down.”
The summer of 2004 was the summer I took up a new hobby. Those whoppers gave me something to plan my weekends around. To check out the storms, I went to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website. It’s abbreviated NOAA. Pronounced Noah. Last time we heard from that guy, he had wrecked his ark on a mountain. That’s what happens when you use a dove for a gps.
Because of all the weather changes predicted for the near future, maybe he’ll start selling arks. One can only hope, because, according to Nostradamus, the entire Florida peninsula will be underwater soon and I’m going to need a boat.
If I had lived in ancient times, I might have thought that Jehovah was doing an Old Testament on us sinners that summer of 2004. Or that Zeus was in a tiff and hot under the collar because some woman he chased rejected his advances. Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne were that kind of storms.
Maybe, if we Floridians had sacrificed a virgin or two in the spring, the hurricanes would have gone off to Texas or Louisiana and left us alone. Then we could have played the “I’m sorry you were hit, but I’m glad it wasn’t us” game we had played for so many years before.
In 2004, Florida was hit by so many storms that the schools here now use them to teach the kids their math and their A-B-Cs. C is for Charley, F is for Frances, I is for Ivan, J is for Jeanne. How many pounds of ice does it take to keep a twelve-pound turkey frozen for six days without electricity?
It all started when the Sunshine State was whacked by the double whammy of Mercury in retrograde and Friday the 13th in August. The meteorologists told us that we had a Charley coming. But I wasn’t worried. I’d been through hurricanes before. I speculated that by the time this Charley of a storm moved through Tampa and reached Orange County, and Orlando where I lived, his winds would be reduced to 75 mph. We could easily survive that. Oh, we might get some tornadoes and flooding, but we would get through it and life would return to normal. Besides Charley wasn’t about to hit Orlando head on. He was headed for Tampa. Just to prove it, the Weather Guys were telling the Tampa folks that it was a-okay to c’mon over to the Central Florida part of the state. Book a hotel room, then see Disney World while they were at it.
Then suddenly the National Hurricane Center in Miami went and revised its projections. I hate it when they do that. And so did the folks who evacuated Tampa. Charley was not going through Tampa after all. He had changed directions. We were given only hours to get ready for the disaster heading our way. It seemed that earlier the forecasters forgot something. Being a him-a-cane, Charley was not about to stop and ask for directions to Tampa. He was coming for us with a bear hug of a gotcha.
Many in my neighborhood put up plywood to protect their windows but not me. I wasn’t about to give in to this Charley-paranoia that easily. Fortunately, and I do mean fortunately, thanks to the encouragement of the local news guys, I begrudgingly filled my gas tank and bought batteries. Considering how battery dyslexic I am, that was hard. To determine a triple-A from a double-A or a D from a C, and what takes which battery, I felt like I needed an advanced degree in battery calculus. So I indiscriminately threw a bunch of the little suckers into my grocery cart along with bottles of water, canned food, trail mix, and whatever else came to mind. That included chocolate. I wasn’t about to experience the chocolate d.t.s.
That Friday afternoon I filled the bathtub in case I didn’t have running water after the hurricane. I checked the flashlights, made sure the battery-powdered radio worked, and pulled the plants inside. I tied down anything outside that was tie-downable. I even packed up some things just in case I had to get out of Dodge in my Dodge and get out fast. I wasn’t taking any chances.
“Charley is no big deal,” I kept saying to myself. You know, that self that is all cocky and confident. Thank God, I listened to all that meteorological pep talk and practiced the ain’t-taking-no-chances.
I brought in the cats for the long night ahead. Have you ever tried to keep three cats in a house during a hurricane? It’s not pleasant to listen to twelve hours of meowing from one cat or another. As soon as one calmed down, another started, pacing back and forth, scratching on the doors and the windows with an I-want-out-and-I want-out-now insistence. They were much more worried than I was, figuring they’d be safer hiding outside than inside the house. I fixed myself some sandwiches and waited. I didn’t have to wait for long, only a few hours.
That evening Charley went from a Category Two to a Category Two-and-a-half, then it passed a Three to a Category Four, then he came ashore. He slammed his fist into Southwest Florida and blitzkrieged through Punta Gorde. He shot up the Interstate Four corridor with one-hundred-and-forty-five miles per hour winds, heading straight toward us. This was not your average hurricane. This was Charley and he was in a real foul mood. He was about to stamp his name on the face of Florida forever.
About 8:30 p.m., a little over two hours after he made landfall, my neighborhood went dark. A crackle and a fizz and the TV screen went fuzzy, then a black screen and no electricity. I turned on the radio to hear the announcer say, “We’ve had only sporadic power outages. But the Waffle House lights are out. This must be bad.”
Heavy winds ripped through Orange County where I live for about an hour or so. It seemed much longer. When you’re in the middle of a hurricane, five minutes can seem like an eternity. Gusts were clocked at 105 mph.
Sitting there, listening to the howling wind outside, I was a category-four type scared and wished I had boarded up my house with plywood. As Charley buzzsawed through Orange County with his winds of fury, kicking butt and pulling up trees by the hair, I prayed, I offered bribes, I cajoled the Great Beyond. Charley was enough to scare the agnostic out of anyone, including me. As far as preparation for a hurricane was concerned, I had seen the light, I was born-again, I was converted to the cult of overpreparation. If another hurricane came, I would be prepared. Charley punched that into my psyche, and I wasn’t alone.
Charley gave our trees a buzz cut, removing much of the canvas that had been some of the best canopy in Florida. He took down many of the fifty-year-old laurel oaks in his path. The live oaks managed to hold out against the full force of his winds and remain standing. Then he was gone, just like that, leaving much of the landscape looking like a war zone.
Finally the weather folks on the radio said the hurricane had passed. I checked the outside just to make sure we had seen the backside of Mr. Charley. Then I let the cats out and flopped into my bed, dog-tired from the disaster that had just passed, relieved and glad to be alive.
I woke up Saturday morning, still exhausted from the terror of the night before. There was no electricity to make coffee or a hot breakfast. I grabbed a bottle of water to drink and went outside to survey the mess. I felt like a turtle, sticking his head out of his shell, checking out the world, not sure if he wants to see what he is going to see. There were quite a few large limbs scattered across my yard. But my house and my car had survived intact with no property damage. I wiped my forehead and breathed a gigantic Phew! of thanks.
Like me, my neighbors were out checking windows and doors and roofs for damage. Some on my street had trees down and debris was everywhere. As the day progressed, a number of us went into a picking-up-branches, then a raking-the-yard mode. Others brought out chainsaws and the sound of buzzing filled the neighborhood. We felt an urgency to get back to normal as fast as we could.
As I listened to the radio off and on that morning, I began to grasp that no one had any idea of what we were dealing with. The city, county and state governments sounded overwhelmed. Early on, they told us to stay off the roads as much as possible so that emergency vehicles could get around. The airports and theme parks were not open. If Disney World was closed, and on a Saturday too, there had to be some awesome damage. It would be days before we understood how much Charley had done. All I knew was that it was bad because they kept telling us it was bad over the radio.
There were those whose telephone service was knocked out. But I wasn’t one of them. City and county officials urged everyone not to use our cell phones, needing their frequencies for emergency operations. However there were no such restrictions on land phones. I decided right there and then that I wasn’t about to replace my land phone—a nineteenth century technology—with a twenty-first century cell phone any time soon. We used it to call our family and friends in other parts of the country to let them know that we were okay.
I called around and found a restaurant open nearby. Driving to the restaurant gave me a good opportunity to get a little look-see at how the rest of Orlando was doing. It was like driving through a wasteland. There wasn’t a yard we passed that didn’t have some sort of mess in it. Trees were tossed like toothpicks, some blocking streets, others thrown into roofs and through windows and into cars. Most of the traffic lights were out, so we proceeded with caution.
The restaurant was packed. Though we did not know anyone there, there didn’t seem to be a stranger in the restaurant. Everybody was glad to see that everyone else survived. It sure bucked up our spirits just to eat in the midst of all those people.
In the days that followed, problem after problem came at us as we Florida residents continued to dig our way out of the disaster Charley left behind. We were inundated with news of damage control, heavy lifting and boiled water alerts. We heard stories of the elderly who were homeless, and in some cases, trailer park-less. Schools remained closed. The buildings were not safe for their students. Homeowners were confronted with insurance policies that wouldn’t cover their damages because of hurricane deductibles. People scrounged for tarps to cover their leaky, and in some cases completely destroyed, roofs to keep them from further damage. Tarp Blue became the new Florida color.
Saturday, no electricity.
Sunday, no electricity.
Monday, and still no electricity.
At night, I couldn’t sleep much. The humidity was so humid I felt like I was in a horror movie called “The Day The Humidity Killed Us All.” I tried counting ice cubes, then glaciers. This only helped a little. After tossing and turning for a couple of hours, I finally slept but not deeply.
We Floridians started singing the “Got Power” Boogie. Instead of “How was your weekend?” or “How you doing?” our greeting became “Is your power back on?” Everyone I knew found himself with the jitters, better known as Post Storm Fever.
Some good things did come out of that time after Charley’s visit. Without lights, we saw a clearer sky and the stars we always missed. Stars usually washed out by the city lights. Neighbors reacquainted themselves with each other as they walked their neighborhoods, many for the first time in years. One told me her youngest daughter had gone off to college, gotten married, and now had two kids. Then she showed me pictures. I didn’t recognize her daughter.
“You mean that’s little Annie? The last time I saw her she was only seven. Wow!”
Another neighbor said to me, “I haven’t seen you for years. I thought you’d left the state.”
“Now that you mention it, maybe I should’ve. But no, I’m still here.”
Early Thursday morning I woke up to the news. Our electricity was back on. It was like Christmas, New Year’s Eve, the Fourth of July and my birthday all rolled into one. No more clamminess, no more sweating from the humidity, at least not inside the house. It had taken almost a week to get the power back on in our neighborhood. Unfortunately we were only one hurricane down. Three to go.
Just as things were recovering, we began to hear rumors. There was another hurricane, Frances this time, out in the Atlantic about to crash our “getting back to normal” party. We in Central Florida had been unlucky once. In our minds, it would be a freak of nature if we were unlucky a second time so soon.
Florida might as well have put up a sign, saying “Welcome To A Freak Of Nature.” Because Frances was on her way.
There she stood off the coast of Florida, ready to do some serious carnage and mayhem. On a Labor Day weekend too. What a lousy waste of a good three-day, holiday weekend. At least, if Charley and Frances had come during the week, we’d have gotten a few days off from work.
This time I prepared, and prepared some more, until I couldn’t think of anything else to prepare. Again the car all tanked up, a bathtub filled with water, snacks and canned goods, bottled water, working flashlights and a radio, plenty of batteries, several bags of precious ice, cats in the house. I was not taking any chances with this one.
I hunkered down and waited for the Second Coming. The waiting started to get to us. Our nerves were so on edge that many of us Orlandoans suffered from PHSS, Pre-Hurricane Stress Syndrome. You know the storm’s on her way and there’s nothing, not one thing, you can do about it but wait. We just wanted to get the damn thing over, yet she was out there in the Atlantic, trying to make up her mind. Just as Charley had been punctual, Frances determined to be late.
Taking what seemed like a forever to hit our east coast, she kept flip-flopping on the weather forecasts. She was sounding more like a politician than a storm. She just would not make up her mind whether she was going to hit us or not. It was wait and wait and wait, and wait some more. If only Frances would come and put us out of our misery. The sooner the better. I’m here to tell you we were emphasizing the hurry in hurrycane. Won’t you just hurry up and raise your Cain please, we prayed in our agony.
Finally Frances hit land. She hit hard. After almost a week of trying our patience, this giant buzz saw of a killer ‘cane landed around Saturday midnight at Sewells Point near Stuart, Florida. For hours, wave after wave of feeder bands, those bands of rain at the outermost edge of the hurricane, drove through Orlando while Frances pounded a good part of the east coast for more than eight hours before she moved on through the state toward Tampa and Hillsborough County. As she buzzed her way further inland, she made an X-marks-the-spot onto Charley’s pathway and crossed it. Maybe that’s where the pirates hid their treasure in the eighteenth century or where the e.t.s plan to land their flying saucers.
The 275-mile wing span of Frances touched almost every inch of Florida. She showed no mercy. She brought devastation, devastation, and more devastation as she relentlessly pushed toward the Gulf of Mexico, then turned north and traveled up the Gulf side of the Sunshine State. When it was over, five million people were left without power, 2.8 million evacuated, thousands without water or roofs or homes, and health hazards, such as mosquitoes and backed-up sewage, from standing water. If a picture is worth a thousand words, one newspaper photograph spoke loudly of what Frances did to our spirits. It showed a church spire crashed into somebody’s roof like a missile.
By late Sunday afternoon, Frances had passed and the state, the peninsula that is Florida, looked like the aftermath of an alien invasion from “War of the Worlds”. Then on Monday, just as we were beginning to relax, the rains came. I’d always wanted a swimming pool in my backyard but a swamp was not what I bargained for.
Utility teams came from all over the United States to aid us after Charley and stayed to help us through Frances. The repair workers who showed up on our street on Monday evening were a Chattanooga, Tennessee Power Crew. They turned our electricity back on at 8:40 p.m. It had gone out Sunday at 1:30 a.m., a little over forty-three hours earlier. Since then, I have had a deep affection for Chattanooga.
In a few days, the water in my back yard receded. My life began to feel like normal again. But what about all those others who were still suffering? In my gratitude, a bit of guilt slid in. There were still many without power and water. And there were soon to be more than ever. We were about to face another terror.
We spent a week tracking Hurricane Ivan. He was out in the Gulf of Mexico, holding steady, building up his strength. He wanted to do his bit to spread the love and make sure all parts of the Sunshine State received a piece of the destruction. On September 16, he made landfall and pounded the Florida Panhandle with 130 mph winds. This time Central Florida was spared but Ivan’s wrath left the Panhandle shattered. As I watched the pictures on television, I didn’t think so much about how awful he was. Rather when was the pain going to stop?
After three huge storms, it should have been obvious to Homeland Security and the FEMA folks that the State of Florida had gotten this disaster preparation down to a science. Now we could get on with our lives. But not yet. Not yet. Heading toward us was Ivan Junior, or the Return of Ivan…and Jeanne…and Karl…and Lisa…and who knew who else.
Hurricane Jeanne looked like she was going off to the northeast into the Atlantic and do no harm. But the Curse of 2004 was not over by a long shot. She circled around until suddenly she was coming for us. She was “really packing a hammer.” An audible sigh of “Oh shit, not again” could be heard all the way to Africa. Plywood up…plywood down…plywood back up again. We felt like we were being plywooded to death by these storms.
And now more evacuations were called for. Some had evacuated so much, they met themselves on the way back from the previous evacuation. Some evacuated as they were told, but not nearly as many as did for Charley, Frances or Ivan. Several reasons were given as to why that happened. The one I suspected: we were all exhausted. A month of hurricanes, and major ones at that, and here was another one. Exhausted and angry, we were all beginning to feel like the character in the movie “Network” who said, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” There was nothing we could do but sit back and take it.
All supplied up from the previous hurricane watches, I waited out Jeanne, a storm one shopper at Home Depot appropriately nicknamed the “This Stinks!” hurricane. First the folks at Weather Central predicted that she wasn’t coming. Then she was. Then she wasn’t. Then she was. I found myself singing the Steve Lawrence 1963 hit song, “Go Away, Little Girl,” telling Jeanne that “it’s hurtin’ me more each minute that you delay” going away.
Then Jeanne was upon us. A wiggle here, a wobble there, and here we went again. And there went my house and oops! the cost of my home owner’s insurance and property taxes were going up. At least, that was how I felt at the time. And again I lost power. It went out a third time on Sunday morning at six. A transformer behind my house popped .
As the knuckleball that was Jeanne hit Tampa, I heard one of the reporters on the radio say that he’d seen a large oak split three ways in front of a dentist office. It looked like a giant cavity. Again and again stories like that came out over the news. We were all frightened, very frightened. Then there were the tornadoes. And water, water everywhere. The Orlando Sentinel carried the headlines: “Slammed again” and “The hurricane that ate Florida.”
On Monday night at 12:30, I was sitting, reading by a battery-powered lamp. I looked up and out through my front window. The street lights were lit. I had my electricity back on. I had had Christmas three times that year and it wasn’t even December.
It seems that the third time was a charm in the karmic scheme of things. There would be no more hurricanes for Orlando in 2004. After four hurricanes, the Sunshine State had definitely worked off a lot of bad karma. Of course, it is possible, just maybe, all that water washed our sins away. Even the sin of improperly counting chads in the year 2000.
Two thousand and four turned out to be the Year of Another. There was another hurricane and another and another until all the anothers had run out and we were left with blue tarps and debris. Millions of homes had been without power and there were billions of dollars in damage. Something like 83,000 homes had been damaged. That’s one out of five in Florida. Parts of the state that hadn’t been flooded in years were now underwater. At least, temporarily. Yet we survived with only a very small loss of life.
Often, as I lay in bed in the dark late at night, I whisper a thank you to whomever or whatever helped us through that terrible hurricane season. Just before I doze off to sleep, one particular memory comes to mind. It happened the Saturday morning after Charley made his mark on Orlando. I was out in the yard, looking around, feeling so disheartened. Then I saw something that stopped me in my tracks. How after all that destruction, all the fallen trees, limbs everywhere, power lines down, how after all that chaos, I saw a small fragile flower, a pink one, reaching for the sun, blossoming…and all I could say, “Ain’t nature grand.”