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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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08/15/2004 Archived Entry: "Hurricane Charley by Kathy LaFollett"

We very seldom get first-person reports on acts of God, but we have one today from our reviewer down Tampa way, Kathy LaFollett. We are all very glad she and her family are okay. Ed

Charley Stood Me Up…thank God.
By Kathy LaFollett

Living in a coastal location in Florida has one rule. You will dance with the Devil sometime between June and November of any given year. August 13, 2004 the Devil's name was Charley. And he stood me up…thank God.

Wednesday morning, the East Coast of Florida was watching Charley head toward the Cayman Islands and Cuba. We were focused on the suggested track up and toward us, but where the eye laid its claim no one quite knew. Doplar, Vipir and all the high-tech radar available refused to give a definitive answer. As weather planes flew over and through its mass we waited for new readings and feedback. The local Home Depot and Lowe's were quiet. Masking tape, board, nails, hammers, generators, bottled water were in abundance. Pinellas County hadn't seen a direct visit from the Devil since 1921. We were arrogant and certain that again, the devil would choose a different date for the evening.

I had a 9 am appointment with a client on Thursday the 12th. Ironically I was hired by my husband's employer for production work. After my appointment with the Creative Director I walked through the office's labyrinth to my husband's desk. We lightly discussed the weather but at that time, Pinellas had not been announced as the lucky date for the Devil. Generally there was the attitude he'd go North or South, but surely not Pinellas. The Devil hadn't chosen Pinellas since 1921; he probably didn't even remember us.

At noon while driving back from my appointment, the radio brought news that hadn't been heard of in 51 years. The Devil had chosen Pinellas as his date for the evening. He had, for all intensive purposes, woken the arrogant sleep of Pinellas County. At noon I pulled into a gas station to fill the Jeep to full capacity. I wasn't alone. The station was packed and lines were forming for each pump as the sleepy county residents realized they had a date to keep, whether they liked it or not. At 12:30 I arrived home to switch on local weather and realized…we had a major problem named Charley. By this time the weather planes had brought data that served a frightening thought, he was just skirting over the thinnest part of Cuba, bypassing the mountain range that would have slowed his furry, and not yet clear of the island was morphing from a CAT 2 to a CAT 3 hurricane. 125 mile an hour winds with gusts flirting with 145 mile an hour. A small part of my brain said, "This'll be a CAT 4, it's going to be ugly."

Tampa Bay and the Clearwater area offer an intriguing lesson in Physics, nature, and population growth. In 1921, the area we all call "the Tampa Bay area" was lightly populated, home of the rich and vacationing. Farmers and the wealthy enjoyed the environment. There were no Condos, Hotels, or overbuilt properties. In 2004 matters are different. 6 million plus call the Pinellas County and Tampa Bay home. This doesn't count tourists and visitors. Pinellas is notoriously overpopulated in humans and more importantly, cars. We have 3 bridges across the Bay to use as escape. We have a signature bridge going south. We have one major highway going North and South to get out of the County. Our highways and byways are not built to support the flux that was about to occur. 380,000 people would receive a mandatory evacuation notice. That included our family of 4. Pinellas as a nature lesson offers up the simple truth that overbuilding, overpopulating, and over demand of natural water resources makes for water control problems. We flood VERY easily. Nature had already dished up enough rain to put us 10 inches ahead of the year's rainfall. We were soaked, saturated and soppy. Any more rain would bring flash flooding that would close roads. Physics presents the last nasty lesson for the area. Excessive high winds coupled with 16 foot storm surges during high tide puts everyone in danger; period.

At 1:00 pm I called my husband to facilitate "Operation Get the Hell Out". We live in Zone C. On the water, higher than most, but mandatory evacuation is a simple assumption with a CAT 3 storm. By this time, the weather planes were wondering if the Devil named Charley may not put on a show for us and become a CAT 4 at landfall. Yes, indeed, my brain may be right Charley would be a very ugly date. CAT 4 hurricanes are the line of no return. Someone will die, and many things will be destroyed and no one in its path will be the same.

At 2:00 pm I had a reservation at a hotel as far as time would allow us to go East in Kissimmee. By this time approximately 1 million people between Pinellas County and Tampa Bay were asked to evacuate. Approximately 1 million people were on the phone or their cell phones as well. I couldn't get through to my husband via cell or landline to let him know we had a safe destination. Of course, the Devil, Charley, hadn't let us all know he had other plans, and that safe destination would end up being right in the middle of his travels on Friday.

At 3:00 Cali was able to call me and inform me that his friend would be giving him a ride home from work, and that my reservation would be just fine.

Our son Chris and I were then left with the task of moving 40 some plants inside our apartment, pack food, clothes for 2 nights, gather important documents and prepare our apartment to go offline from the electric grid. We spent the next hour locking down. A short trip to Lowe's for masking tape revealed the locals were finally paying attention. Board, tape, bottled water, batteries, and the like were flying off the shelves and into shopper's carts at an astounding pace. We left with 3 rolls of 2 inch tape. Let's face it, a CAT 4 in this county made most efforts futile.

Arriving back at the apartment we were greeted with many phone messages from friends and family up North. Not familiar with the Florida map and our true location, they all assumed we were already swimming. No time for return calls though, no news is good news, could be worse, all mantras ringing in my head as we applied large X's on all the windows and glass doors.

Cali arrived with our good friend and a 6-pack of beer. This is tradition in hurricane zones. Hurricanes and beer go hand in hand in Pinellas County. We stopped operations, turned the TV back on to see the current threats and discussed plans. Fred, our friend, had a home in St Petersburg located directly in the center of the "white zone", or better known as the "no evacuation zone". He was adamant that we not try and travel the overburdened highways and come directly to his home. He was adamant that the storm would not hit Pinellas and we could drink and Xbox our way right through the event. He was adamant and Cali was in full agreement.

Evacuation for hurricanes is akin to a crap shoot. You gamble against the devil, laying bets on where he will be dancing and when he will be calling it an evening. We went "all in" on our bet and decided to ride the storm out at Fred's no evacuation house.

I called the reservation desk in Kissimmee and cancelled our reservation, which they easily refilled as hindsight would prove that a large portion of evacuees arrived in Orland and the Kissimmee area by midnight Thursday. They lost their bet, and had a dance with the devil.

We gathered our packed things, loaded the dogs and cat into our Jeep, shut down the circuit breakers and left our home still and dark; The quiet before the storm.

Thursday night was spent drinking, gaming and swimming in Fred's pool. The men gamed and drank while our son joined in the gaming with Sobe flowing freely, and we all ate grilled chicken. The quiet before the storm resembled just another beautiful if not rainy night in Florida and we treated it as such. Fred and his live-in girlfriend have two cats, and adding our animals we were now five adults and five animals, waiting impatiently to get the dance underway. Waiting is the really the most nerve racking part of a hurricane. Waiting to see who was right, who was wrong, and who gets the dance. There is way too much time to think about the Devil's appointment. Imagination kicks in and you can easily drive your blood pressure through the roof thinking about the myriad of ways Charley will step on your head; or at least that's what I did Thursday night.

Our daughter chose to handle the storm in the company of friends and would intermittently call-in to see "what we were doing" and what I thought the final outcome would be; none of my answers were enough to alleviate worry or entertain her imagination away from bad thoughts. But touching base was comforting and we both knew we had done the best we could for this date, and our bets were laid and couldn't be taken off the table at that point.

We all woke up at 9 am on Friday. The animals had finally made their own introductions and were doing well together oblivious to the threat and more interested in chasing each other over the hardwood floors at breakneck speeds. On a side note, a shorthair house cat, we found, is faster than a Silky Yorkshire Terrier. It's amazing what you'll learn during a hurricane.

With the click-click-click of animals chasing through the house we watched with increased dismay that Charley still had his sites on the mouth of Tampa Bay. Which leads to another lesson; everyone calls the City of Tampa, Tampa Bay. That is a misnomer. Tampa is Tampa, the water is Tampa Bay. Pearls of wisdom thrown out under the dark clouds of Charley.

My nerves were shot at this point, and being a Cancerian I had had enough of two men acting so relaxed and unimpressed with the situation. SOMEONE needed to be as worried as I even if I had to drag them into my dark place. I walked out to the back deck and announced it was time to locate boards for windows to secure at least two safe rooms. I would later learn, Fred humored me with that purchase and would have disagreed with me had I been his wife. But he didn't have that piece of paper to negotiate with and agreed. Cali and he head out to find the last 3 boards available in Pinellas County. I joined Fred's girlfriend, Lauren, to hunt for bottled water and batteries. A quiet, but present individual, who for all intensive purposes was but a side note to the human factor of my story; she had already taken the stance that what would be would be, "C'Est La Vie" had operated in her head since we first entered Fred's home.

Lauren and I returned empty handed being turned down by three local stores as they locked their front doors. The men returned victorious with overpriced board ready to secure the precious two rooms of safety. By this time I had forgotten that a CAT 4 hurricane makes these efforts futile. Nevertheless I relied on the knowledge of the covered windows much like a security blanket.

Again gaming and drinking resumed as we fast approached our appointed date with Charley.

At approximately 4 o'clock Charley took on a manic personality and gained center-eye speed and strength but slowed its march to the mouth of Tampa Bay. The Devil folded on our "all in" bet and stayed at the table with Port Charlotte.

Ironically, since the media had been chanting "Tampa, Tampa, Tampa" for a day and some the folks in Port Charlotte, Punta Gorda and surrounding areas did not ramp their evacuations to a level necessary for the Devil's Dance. They would pay dearly for that bet very soon.

We all spent the rest of the event back where we started on Thursday night, eating, gaming, drinking and watching in shock as Charley gave Port Charlotte a beating it hadn't seen in decades. It was at this point, that we realized Polk County, Kissimmee, Orlando were in a direct line of mauling. The dance turned into a moshpit when Charley's eye took land and would prove strong and tempestuous all the way back over Florida and out into the Atlantic coast. I sat in stunned shock at the thought of our prior destination. I had laid a bet that Fred and Cali had called off the table. We were saved by a 6-pack and two men far more level headed than myself. Cali would later reveal that he had not been sold on my idea, but due to my nature knew I could more of a force than any hurricane. He'd rather bend to me than Charley. It's the Devil you know at times I suppose.

At 10 pm our mandatory evacuation was called off, and under the dark but calm skies now vacant of Charley's presence we packed animals, cooler, clothes and Xbox games back into our Jeep and headed back home.

By 1 a.m. we had the tape off our windows, the plants back on the porch and the animals at their own food bowls. We were home. We were safe. Charley stood me up, thank God.

Hurricane Earl left a message on the answering machine today. I'm hedging my bets.

A final thought:

This storm wasn't a joke and it wasn't entertaining. Many people have suffered and some have died. I have many friends who road out this storm inland and came back with horrible frightening stories. For those who have lost much and those who lost their loved ones, I mourn for you and wish you peace and comfort.


Replies: 1 Comment

i was on holiday visting florida on holiday we were so scared we saw people and they were apologising for the worst storm they had in a long time we were so scared we stayed in the howard jhonson in kissimmee h192 we saw people crowd the hotel we didnt get badly hit but there was 1 thing i take everyday as it comes it was so scary and just seeing the damaged it caused upset me alot and i no many people lost everything that day but ive never been so frigtend in my life i wish some people in this country can imagine what it was like for us over there im so sorry for the people who lost everything

Posted by alison @ 08/06/2005 10:39 AM PST

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