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On Monday, August 9th, I ran some errands, filled up the 9-year-old Dodge Custom van with gas, backed it in the driveway of our home in Largo, Florida with the odometer reading exactly 100,000 miles. I then proceeded to load it with everything but the kitchen sink -- otherwise known as vacation necessities -- for a long planned week of rest and relaxation in Ft. Myers Beach.
While we live between St. Petersburg and Clearwater and the local Gulf of Mexico beaches are a scant four miles from our home, we prefer the laid back Ft. Myers Beach area for our ocassional R&R retreat. It's an easy 2-1/2 hour drive south on I-75.
We arrived in the early afternoon. (Delayed by a 20 mile scenic detour when I missed my turnoff in Ft. Myers and ended up getting on the island from the south end via Bonita Springs. Note to DC: "Get the fancy navigation computer gizmo in your next new vehicle. The cost will be worth it in avoiding 20 miles of 'I told you so's" from the wife.")
We enjoyed a long walk on the beach and I managed a nap while the wife sunbathed.
Our "information age" was retro. I had my wi-fi equipped lapton with me, but the bright yellow Sandpiper Resort where we were staying didn't have internet access. So I was limited to newspapers and TV for information -- except for stops at the local library to check email the following two mornings.
Monday evening on the weather channel, we watched the progress of hurricane Bonnie which was headed towards north Florida and Charley which was beginning to look like a threat to us in south Florida. (Note to the hurrican naming folks: Where's your sense of humor? Bonnie should definitely be following by Clyde, not Charley.)
Tuesday, we hit the beach in the morning and the wife shopped in the Edison mall in Ft. Myers in the afternoon. Tuesday evening the news about Charley on TV was getting worse.
On Wednesday morning we headed to Sanibel Island for lunch at Gull's in the Perriwinkle Place shopping center. My wife hit all of the shops and I even found a pair of boat shoes that were marked down to my price range. We returned to the hotel -- the wife sun bathed while I caught a nap.
Wednesday morning I'd read in the local paper where the county commissioners had voted to raise the toll on the bridge and causeway to Sanibel from an alread obscene $3 to $6 on November 1st. The discount rate that the residents pay is going up from fifty cents to $3. I told the hapless toll booth lady, "Tell your county commissioners that this is my last trip to Sanibel." She only frowned and gave me a sympathic shrug.
Wednesday evening we watched the local TV news and the weather channel with alarm. Charley was going to come up the west coast of Florida and the predictions for landfall ran the gauntlet from Ft. Myers to Tampa. Then we saw that the local officials were taking it very seriously and that schools would be closed Thursday and evacuations started. Our choices were to get up early the next morning and head home to p repare our house for a hurricane or to leave immediately and hopefully miss the traffic.
We decided to leave immediately. We loaded the van in record time and were on I-75 by 10 p.m. It was a good decision. Very light traffic on the interstate -- in fact, I put the cruise on 75 and never had to brake until the Sunshine Skyway bridge toll booth 105 miles later.
We arrived home at midnight waking our daughter that was house sitting for us.
Thursday, was a sweating frustrating day. A trip to the grocery for "essentials" of canned goods, bottled water, etc. And we faced the task of somehow shoehorning into the garage and Florida room all of the stuff that decorates the yard -- windchimes, birdfeeders, statues, benches, swing, trash cans, potted plants. We repackaged some sand bags we'd had from a storm scare a few years ago to try to keep water from seeping under the rear patio sliding doors. The wife was upset to learn that the plywood we'd had for the patio doors from that long ago scare were used to make the two workbenches in the garage.
The neighbors on either side of us came in with their pickup trucks loaded with plywood and they sawed and hammered into the night. Charley by then was predicted to be a Category II storm and was headed straight for us in Tampa Bay. I was getting very worried. (DC's wife is the official worrier in the family, so he didn't express his concern for fear of escalating her already high worry meter.)
Needless to say, every waking moment not spent working around the house was spent in front of the TV or surfing the net for the latest tidbit of information. I found radar images from Key West, Naples, and Ft. Myers. I'd catch the latest advisory on the net and the same time the TV talking heads were getting it on their laptops and reading it on the air.
Friday brought more anxiety. Charley -- damn him anyway! -- was headed straight for Tampa Bay. The beaches were evacuated on Thursday. The gas stations were all sold out of gas. The neighborhood 7-11 convenience store was almost out of ice. And all of that BEFORE the storm hit. There would be nothing for us afterwards. We found some duct tape and taped the sliding patio doors. We got on each others nerves. I was worried big time. I just didn't have a good feeling about this one.
Our house is solid, and I've been in Florida a long time so I know that Cat I or II storms aren't "that" bad. But Charlie was strengthening. It felt like de ja vu. We were in Miami just a couple hours before Andrew hit. And the weather was the same. Really nice and sunny -- no inkling of the disaster about to happen.
(We lived in the Cape Kennedy area when Andrew hit Miami. We, once again, were headed on vacation and were flying out of Miami International to France. We were driving a rental car to Miami while everyone else was driving to get out of Miami. Our plane was scheduled for a 7:30 p.m. takeoff; it actually took off at 8:30; they closed the airport due to Andrew at 10 p.m. and didn't reopen for days.)
The Stultz household was a bleak one as we watched TV and I surfed the net sharing each new bit of info. More than once I said, "The only thing that will save us is if that SOB turns right." Somehow, the storm gods must have heard me. Charley suddenly and unexpectedly took a slight turn to the right. Instead of getting a glancing blow in the Ft Myers area, they were now the bullseye for landfall instead of us. The collective sigh of relief from Tampa Bay residents probably helped push the storm even more on its new course.
You know the rest of the story. Charley came ashore across the north end of Sanibel Island where we had spent an afternoon shopping just two days before. And marched up the center of the state. Ft. Myers Beach, where we stayed, has 80% of its structures damaged. There was two feet of sand on the main drag in front of the hotel where we stayed -- which no doubt means that their two swimming pools are now sand boxes. Residents won't be allowed back on the island until sometime next week.
In our extended family, we have three married daughters in the Orlando area. All three suffered roof damage to their homes as the storm treked northeastward up the state. Many of the local beach residents, who wisely evacuated, went to hotels in central Florida. Their homes were spared, but they moved right smack dab into the middle of the beast. That is worrisome. Many won't heed the warnings next time and next time we probably won't be so lucky.
I, on the other hand, know I have changed my tune. My wife had always insisted that we should evacuate, even for a Categor II storm -- I was against it. I think now that I'll pack up and leave. I don't want to spend hours in our walk-in closet with the sound of the wind and rain playing hell with the house. Especially if those hours have to also be spent listening to "I told you so!"
I've watched a lot of TV and surfed the net non stop since the storm passed. The Ft. Myers paper, the News-Press, has had some excellent coverage of the devastation down there. The information age is a help for keeping safe from hurricanes. The advisories are good. But the models are still not perfect.
The storm actually hit a lot of farm land on its path up through the center of the state. The economic hit to the state would have been ten times worse if it had made landfall in the Tampa Bay area.
Why spare me and hit them? God surely does work in mysterious ways.
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