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A Hurricane Tale

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Jim Cantore on The Weather Channel is in Cape Hatteras, NC, covering the approach of Hurricane Earl. First of all, in Florida we have a superstition that if Jim Cantore shows up in your town when a hurricane is coming you are in big trouble. If I were in the Cape Hatteras area right now, I’d be hunkering down or evacuating.

Mr. Cantore just said something that nearly made me bring up my dinner: he reminded the folks on the North Carolina coast that in 2004 there was a Hurricane Charley that took a sudden jog to the right and came ashore at Port Charlotte, Florida. Hurricane Charley was supposed to travel up the west coast of Florida and possibly make landfall near the Tampa Bay area. On the morning of August 13, 2004, Charley was a category 2 (115 mph) storm, but two hours before landfall it had become a category 4 (145 mph). At one point Jim Cantore had been reporting from Sanibel Island and we all thought, oh boy, this thing is not going to make landfall in Tampa. We are screwed.

The national news outlets and The Weather Channel all maintained the storm would make landfall in the Tampa Bay area, but our local weathermen felt differently. At 11am they risked their careers and cut in on the national coverage to tell everyone to get ready – Charley was turning and would make landfall in Lee or Charlotte County. And they were right, because Charley made landfall first at Captiva Island in Lee County, then Pine Island in Lee County, finally hitting Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte in Charlotte County. Charley eventually followed the road from Port Charlotte to Orlando, wrecking havoc all the way.

We covered our windows and doors with hurricane shutters, used the hurricane brace on the garage door, and were all ready to go into our safe room with the cats. I was already there with a battery-powered TV tuned to the local news station when my husband hollered. I ran out to find the hurricane shutter had been pulled off our front door (it was bolted into the cement on the porch in five places, attached with bolts to the metal frames) and my husband was holding the door shut with both hands. Doors open out so they won’t blow in during a storm; unfortunately, the wind can suck them open as well. We knew if the door opened, we would have damage to the inside of the house and possibly lose the roof if the wind came into the house. He wanted me to hold the door while he figured out some way to brace it.

By then the storm was starting to rage, although the worst part was yet to come. I could barely hold on to the handle as my husband frantically ran for rope and then removed one of the bedroom doors. What he ended up doing was putting the bedroom door over the opening where the front door is, using the bedroom door as a brace, tying rope around the handle many times and securing it to the bedroom door, then sitting in a chair up against the bedroom door while holding the front door handle with both hands and bracing his forearms on the other door. This he did for about two hours.

The front of our house faces south, and at some point during all of this the wind came from the south, forcing the sideways rain underneath the door and into the room. I used every towel in the house to mop up the water that came in like a river. We had the portable TV on and the local weathermen were great, talking everyone through it, trying to keep people calm and telling them to hang in there. I just remember thinking, When will this be over?

Unless you’ve been through a hurricane it’s hard to imagine the sounds. The wind is so strong it sometimes sounds like huge objects are being hurled at your house, but often it’s just the force of the wind itself hitting the building. Sheets of rain go sideways, bending trees down all the way to the ground, and your street turns into a river.

When the storm passed I confess I took two Xanax and had a nap. We weren’t able to go outside for a while because even after the worst part of the storm passed, it was still raining badly. Finally we went out the front door and everything looked all right, so we walked out into the street, and it was then I got a good look at our back yard. Our wooden fence was gone, our trees were broken into pieces, and some of the eaves were torn off along with a few roof tiles, but nothing major. Our neighbors next door lost their entire roof, and when you went inside the house you could look up and see sky. Luckily they weren’t in the house during the storm.

We decided to take a little drive to view the damage, and one block away discovered why our electricity was off: all the electric poles down the entire street had snapped off and were on the ground in a row. In town we found two huge air handlers in the middle of the road, and a bit further was the roof of a condo building. Just last year the people were able to move back into that building. There was a lot of damage, but one year later Katrina hit New Orleans and our misery seemed nothing compared to theirs.

No one tells you about the smell. Soon after the storm passes there is the smell of mildew, rotted food, and sewage. The combination of ruined buildings and no electricity makes for a delightful bouquet. I could go the rest of my life and never smell that smell again.

To all the people in North Carolina today: while Earl is still approaching and you have time, don’t take for granted that the storm will do what the weathermen say it “should” do. It just might pull a “Charley” and make a surprise visit.

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