Wednesday, February 2, 2011

G'day Australia: Florida Feels Your Pain

Winter Park, Florida, 2004. The morning after Hurricane Charley paid us a visit. My neighbor Gene Randall took this photo of a house down the street from us.

The headlines showing Cyclone Yasi bearing down on the east coast of Australia brought back many memories. It is a Category 5, which is a deadly force. I know because I survived a summer of hurricanes in Florida in 2004.

Hurricane storms in the Pacific are called cyclones: this is a satellite photo of Cyclone Yasi slamming into Australia.

In 2004, three hurricanes in a row hit my little town of Winter Park, Florida. First came Charley, then Frances, then Jeanne. In between, Ivan struck the Florida panhandle where my niece and her two boys were surviving a year without her husband, who was serving in Iraq.

The track of Hurricane Charley, August 13, 2004.

When Hurricane Charley hit Central Florida, I spent the evening with my friends the Seymours. At one point the storm blew their living room porch doors open and Polly and I had to push them shut while Thad put nails in them to keep them closed. Then, one of their upstairs windows blew out and water began pouring down their walls.

It felt like a scene from the movie Key Largo.

As the eye of the hurricane passed over us, we felt the lull, and feared what would happen on the back side of the storm. We were lucky and landfall had weakened Charley enough that the back side diminished into lashing wind and rain. Thank goodness.

Thad walked me back to my house, a block away, in pitch darkness. You never really know how dark the dark can be until all the electrical power for miles around is out and the sparkle of lights everywhere around you is gone. That's dark.

It wasn't until the next morning, after sunrise, when I stepped outside, that I was able to see the full extent of the damage. My neighbors were all standing on their front porches doing the same thing I was doing: staring in wonder at the destruction.

All of the power lines were down on every single street. This was my street, Glencoe Road in Winter Park, Florida.

The road was impassable. It was covered with downed trees, broken glass and--worse of all--downed power lines. There wasn't a power line in place anywhere. I realized the danger Thad and I had been in when we walked through the streets the night before. Fortunately for us, when the storm hit, the power company killed the power in the lines for safety or I probably wouldn't be here writing this now.

Thus, in the middle of the heat and humidity of a Florida summer we languished without power for seven days while FEMA crews scrambled to repair power lines all over Central Florida. It made me realize that the aftermath of a natural disaster is almost always far worse than the disaster itself. Food spoiled in the refrigerator, humidity dampened the walls, rain fell into homes where roofs had been damaged by falling trees. Water had to be boiled for safety or distributed in bottles. Sewer pumps failed.

Huge piles of storm debris teetered along the sides of roadways, and an entire soccer field at a local park was commandeered by FEMA for mulching the mess and piling it into trucks to be buried who-knows-where.

Track of Hurricane Frances, September 2004.

We could hardly believe it when, a few weeks later, Frances hit and we went through it all over again: Frances destroyed our power grid for five days. The fire house gave out bottled water and bags of ice. But we were all drenched in sweat and growing weary. And then ...

Track of Hurricane Jeanne.

... a few weeks after that, Jeanne hit and I watched as a towering pine in my next door neighbor's yard teetered and fell across the road. Power out again: this time for three days.

My little Winter Park house survived with just a few twisted gutters.

I was lucky. My own house, built in 1927, managed to make it through with only minor damage. My friends the Seymours, who had a gorgeous historic home with a leaky basement and a sump pump that only worked when there was electricity, made the wise decision to sell. They moved into a townhouse where maintenance is included in the fees.

In between our three hurricanes, Ivan slammed Pensacola. The family rallied 'round my niece and her two toddlers. The insurance company had her roof covered in blue plastic tarp until it could be repaired. Her father and father-in-law helped her with other work that had to be done. Her two little boys were fascinated by the experience.

When their father returned to their battered home, they called him the Army Man and told him about all the excitement he had missed. He just smiled. He had lived through his own storm of excitement for a year in Iraq and was glad to be back in the land of hurricanes.

Add to Google Reader or Homepage

Subscribe to Robin Chapman News


Thaddeus said...

You brought back lots of memories of that night in the basement, nailing the doors, and feeling the air pressure drop when the mini-twister went by. Probably the dumbest thing we ever did was walk back to your house in the pitch black, with down power lines all around us and the other side of the storm about to hit. Thanks, I guess, for the memories!

Robin Chapman said...

That was my fault--when the storm abated I felt this crazy need to get back to my house. Nature is so strange: in the modern world we feel we should be immune to it. And yet, that summer, I learned how much power it has. P.S. The Winter Park Library has all my photos of Charley and its aftermath in their archives. If you really want a trip down memory lane, that is where you can go to take it ...