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Catastrophe, Survival, and Recovery: Stories from the Storms

Doing Time in Hurricane Alley
Lee Ambrose, Naples FL

A local TV news reporter shows film footage of people enjoying the unusual surf along the Naples beach. "If this was a hundred years ago, these people out here romping in the high surf today would likely be dead tomorrow." He goes on to explain that a hundred years ago, before the sophisticated hurricane tracking systems, residents of the sleepy fishing village of Naples would never know that a storm was coming until after it hit them. The reporter's sobering comments snap me back to the reality of it all. While I am sick and tired of it, I have to admit that we are the lucky ones - we have had the past week of hurricane updates to keep us informed.

It is the day before Wilma is expected to arrive on our doorstep. We are weary of all of her starts, stops and delays. Our anxiety heightens each time we watch the storm's track. We fear that she is going to be heading our way when she is done toying with Mexico's Yucatan peninsula.

Today, some frolic in the Gulf of Mexico as a diversion from the intense week of storm preparations. Others, myself included, busy themselves with tasks that make them feel in control of a situation that no one can control. We gather those items that previously were not important enough to be included in the list of things we would be sure to grab in a hurry if we had to evacuate. All of a sudden today, we rethink their importance and attempt to protect them in plastic or by putting them on higher ground. "Just in case" I say to my husband as his glance silently asks, "Why are you doing that?"

All week the minutes have inched into hours and the hours have crawled into days. Time seems to be stuck in slow motion. Wilma watchers caution us to "be prepared and be informed." Yet, every day's hurricane update sounds like yesterday's news. She is still sitting on the Yucatan peninsula. She is still traveling at 4 mph. She is still setting her sights on Florida's southwestern gulf coast.

But for days she seems to be more like a vacationer who doesn't want to see her Mexican vacation end. The only trouble is that Wilma is an unwanted visitor. Unwanted in Mexico. Unwanted in Florida.

Wilma - 1, 2005 (October 23, 2005)

9:00 a.m. Eventually, boredom sets in and Wilma tires of her current host. She packs her neat little carry on bag, refuels her wind, rain and tornado powered jets and ventures out into the open waters. She has spent far too much time playing "rain and wind volleyball" in Mexico. Now she's ready for some real excitement.

4:00 p.m. As Wilma screams across the Gulf of Mexico I can almost see her: Like the Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz: Now flying faster than ever, she cackles to the residents of Collier County Florida, "I'll get you my pretties."

6:15 p.m. The sun sets as beach goers push the limits on the newly imposed curfew. In anticipation of the arrival of Wilma's "advance preparation team" authorities have set a curfew to keep our residents safe. Most take the curfew and the approaching storm very seriously. Wilma has gotten our attention. She must have gotten the attention of the birds too. There are none to be seen or heard. They seem to have evacuated ahead of the storm.

Those of us who are not at the beach do a final check of our hurricane kits and lists. It's too late now if we discover we're missing something. We know that. We also know that we aren't lacking. We are as prepared as anyone can be. But human nature compels us to check anyway. "Just in case."

7:30 p.m. Wilma's ETA is sunrise tomorrow. That gives us ten or so hours (give or take) to stand guard—or sleep. But, who can sleep? If not for the TV's reminders of the time, one might easily feel as if they were stuck in a time warp. One of those scenes from the movies where the same sequence plays over and over while the lead character feels as though he is caught in a never-ending, always repeating dream.

9:00 p.m. The faces and voices on the television feel like constant intruders in our living room. "Just a reminder to our viewers: Stay safe. Stay indoors. Keep your TVs, radios and battery operated weather scanners tuned to this broadcast for minute-by-minute information on Wilma's track."

10:00 p.m. Emergency Broadcast System alarms sound and the crawlers stream across the bottom of the television screen. "The National Weather Service has issued a tornado warning for this entire listening and viewing area." The alert on the weather radio sounds with ear-piercing intensity. "A tornado warning has been issued" ... "A hurricane warning is in effect." ... "A flood advisory is in effect for coastal communities of Lee, Charlotte and Collier Counties." ... "A high surf advisory for the southwestern Gulf of Mexico with riptide warnings is in effect." I silently wish that it would just shut up and that Wilma would fizzle into oblivion. But I know that is a futile wish.

Wilma, 2005 (October 24, 2005)

Midnight "Folks, this is it. This storm is going to make a direct hit somewhere in Collier County during the early morning hours. Our best estimate is that she will make landfall sometime between dawn and 8:00 a.m." The weather forecasters encourage viewers to go to bed and try to get to sleep. But, they suggest that we use the TV as our night-light so that we can get updates for those times during the night when we find we cannot sleep. (Those will be far more plentiful than the moments when we can manage to sleep.)

And then, the darkness and silence create an eerie sense of the proverbial "calm before the storm." Time once again stands still. If it not for the rhythmic tick-tick-tick of the old schoolhouse clock I would scarcely know that time is moving forward.

But, even if time seems to be motionless, Wilma is not. She has picked up speed. She has strengthened instead of becoming weaker as she approaches.

3:00 a.m. "Folks in Naples, Marco Island and Everglades City listen up! Wilma is now a major category 3 storm! She is traveling at 14mph and she is heading directly toward you." Says the weatherman. His demeanor has changed. His voice reflects the gravity of the situation he sees coming right for us.

"At her current speed and forward motion, it looks like the eye will pass directly over Marco Island and Everglades City somewhere between 6:00 and 8:00 a.m. But, you folks in Naples need to be vigilant. Wilma is powerful, she is a much wider storm than Charley was last year and she's going to bring a whole heap of weather and punishment to Naples as well."

4:00 a.m. The electricity flickers off and on—a harbinger of things to come unfortunately.

4:20 a.m. A streak of bright white lightening is followed by the loud crack of thunder directly overhead. And then, without further warning, the transformers outside blow. The previously black nighttime sky is now aglow in the blue-white of electrical transformers shorting out and blowing up all over the city. Uttering a feeble groan, the electricity is gone—for how long is anybody's guess.

4:45 a.m. The clock tells me time is passing but my nerves, the darkness and the anticipation of the unknown tries to tell me otherwise. I am stuck in Wilma's time warp—Doing time in Hurricane Alley.

The rain pounds against plywood covered windows. Even though I cannot see it, I can hear it—it sounds as though Wilma is playing darts—throwing thousands of nails at the plywood on the windows. With a fury unlike any I have ever heard before, the wind squeals and howls, momentarily goes silent, and then roars like a roller coaster plummeting from the top of its most fearful point.

Snap! Bang! Slam! Bang!

Snap! Bang! Slam! Bang!

I wonder out loud what those noises are. I quickly realize it was a mistake to do so, for Tim is opening the front door to go inspect. As he opens the door, I envision more scenes from The Wizard of Oz—the house flying through the air. For a brief time, my mind is racing with images of the film that entertained and frightened me at the same time when I was a child. But, now it is not a movie and I am not the least bit entertained. I am however, beyond frightened. With the front door open, it feels as though I need to hold on to a heavy piece of furniture so that I don't get sucked right out into the violent storm. Once satisfied that he knows what is making all of that noise, Tim returns announcing rather casually, "It's just the fascia coming off the building. No big deal."

Crash! Thud! Boom!

Whoosh! Whip! Creak! Snap!

Crash! Thud! Boom!

Whoosh! Whip! Creak! Snap!

"Sounds like that palm tree just took a hit" Tim says. Again, he is far too casual about all of this. Or, is he just trying to stay calm so that I don't panic? Or is this the way he deals with his anxiety over the utter loss of control that is part of being in the eye of the storm?

6:20 a.m. The news reports say Wilma has just made landfall. Bull's Eye! Marco Island/ Everglades City—just as they predicted. The rains and winds that are part of Wilma's entourage are pummeling Naples.

8:30a.m. Two hours since they said the eye made landfall and still Naples is in Wilma's cross hairs. Driving, pounding rain, cracks of thunder and bursts of lightening, winds that sound like trains barreling down the tracks are all in harmony. A cacophony of sounds that only Mother Nature could conduct. She is unrelenting.

9:00 a.m. Suddenly, without warning, the winds shift direction. I don't notice it but Tim does immediately. He proceeds to give me a science lesson. "The counter-clockwise rotation makes that happen." Now the rain is pelting the other side of the house. Peering out the sliders, I see fichus trees bowing to the incredible forces being thrust upon them. It amazes me that they are so resilient. Even the leaves stay put. Other trees that appear much more sturdy have not been able to stand up to this brutal test. Many are downed by Wilma's winds.

10:30 a.m. Feeling rather like a caged animal, I venture out onto the front porch. Joining Tim who has been giving me eyewitness accounts of the scene on Rosemary Court for the past ten minutes, I notice that most of the palm trees are now at 45-degree angles. Root systems have been torn right out of the earth—taking along not only sod but pavement as well. The water-covered driveway is more like a swiftly moving river. White caps form and then spray across my cheeks each time the wind picks up. An occasional gust of wind gives me reason to consider retreating, but I am too amazed at what I am seeing...too in awe of the force of an angry Mother Nature... too fascinated by what did—and did not—withstand her brutal beating.

11:00 a.m. And then all is quiet. This quiet isn't as eerie as the one that heralded Wilma's coming in the pitch dark of night. The wind is gone and in its place there is a gentle, much cooler, and less humid breeze. The air feels light, refreshed—not thick and smothering as in the pre-storm hours. I breathe deeply and notice the wonderfully light scent of nature. "The air smells so clean!" I remark. Tim takes a whiff and agrees—commenting that he'd never noticed that after other hurricanes. He quickly adds that to his recollection, this is the first hurricane he's ever experienced where a cold front was left in place after the storm had blown through the town.

NOON They keep forecasting a sunshine-filled afternoon but at the rate we're going, it's doubtful. Oops! There's a hint of blue sky peeking through those gray clouds. Maybe the sun is on its way afterall.

2:00 p.m. The storm is beyond us now. She's heading across the state. I will learn later that she caused as much if not more damage than she did here. I am physically and mentally exhausted but sleep eludes me.

Any other time I'd announce that such a dreary day was good for curling up with my pillow, my kitties and a good book. But not today! It's just too darned quiet... too quiet to read ... too quiet to sleep ... just too quiet, period.

5:00 p.m. News reports indicate widespread damage, power outages and interrupted water service for hundreds of thousands of people. Curfews are in effect beginning at 6:00p.m. Residents who did not evacuate (Yep! That would be us!) Are urged to stay indoors. But, too late! Tim and I have already been out—he had to go check on the kennel that he and his brother own and I was not willing to stay home alone. The ride out and back definitely qualified as one of those "wild rides" at theme park. It certainly was not your typical drive through the streets of Naples. Downed power lines to be avoided. Pieces of roofs blocking a lane here or there. Trees twice as old as I, toppled like a pile of toothpicks. Fences and pool cages bent and twisted and flung onto a nearby roof. Church steeples on the ground. Gaping holes in a roof here, blown out windows there. And, just as in last year's storms, next to all of that destruction, an osprey's nest sits perched on one of the few power lines that escaped damage—looking like the perfect place to roost.

7:00 p.m. Last night at this time, Wilma was on her way. No one was certain what to expect from the unwanted guest. Long-time Naples residents were banking on their luck—citing that Naples hadn't had a direct hit from a gulf borne hurricane since Donna back in the 1960's. Marco Islanders were clinging to the claim that the island was sacred ground for the Caloosa Indians who once inhabited the island and whose burial grounds on the island protected future generations from such catastrophes. Forecasters and Emergency Operations officials warned that Neapolitans and Marco Islanders were about to see their luck run out. Now we see that the forecasters were right. But we also see that things could have been so much worse.

8:00 p.m. Darkness and silence have partnered to make yet one more long, eerie and uncertain night. An occasional police siren breaks the silence. And in some twisted way that sound is comforting. It signals that Naples is coming to life again. Someone is out there.

8:30 p.m. Now the sounds of gasoline powered generators begin to pollute the silence. But still no birds chirping, no neighbor's voices, no sounds from TV or radio or traffic. All of Naples remains blanketed in the shroud of nightfall on the day a hurricane paid us a visit. The city and its residents are in a state of being shell-shocked and Wilma-weary I suppose.

10:00 p.m. I can't fight it any longer. I must sleep. At least the cool front has made for good sleeping weather—especially since there is no power. With flashlight in hand, I snuggle up to Tim and drift off to sleep.

Wilma + 1, 2005 (October 25, 2005)

5:30 a.m. I am awakened to the sound of our own generator being started. And shortly after, the aroma of freshly brewing coffee beckons to me. Tim is up and at 'em bright and early. He says he knows the security checkpoints will get bogged down and he wants to be out the door at the stroke of 6:00a.m.—the exact moment the curfew will be lifted. I cringe at his announcement because that means I will be left to myself in this powerless house—afraid of the generator's own dangers—not certain of what will happen when the power is restored—if the power is restored. And yet, I really have no desire to go out on those dangerous roads again this morning so I resign myself to find a way to pass the time and stay busy.

6:40 a.m. As I sit here in one of my favorite rocking chairs sipping on coffee, I realize what a glorious morning it is already. I marvel that a week of anticipation and preparation is now behind us. I shake my head in disbelief that we rode out a Category 3 major hurricane with 125 mph sustained winds and not only lived to tell but did so relatively unscathed. It all seems like such a long time ago—ancient history rather than yesterday's news. But that is exactly what it is—yesterday's news.

I am brought out of my thoughts by a very familiar and reassuring sound—the song of a morning dove. It's going to be a good day even if we have no power! If the birds feel comfortable enough to come back here then surely things are going to be fine!

2:00 p.m. No more silence, but still no power. Voices call from one yard to another. "How'd you make out?" "Do you need anything?" "Want a cold drink from my cooler?" "Need help with that broken tree limb?"

Chain saws buzz their way through downed trees. Overnight the number of generators in the neighborhood seems to have tripled. Their steady hum can be heard from a distance. More of the birds have returned. They chirp at one another as if to say "Nice to see you! Welcome back!" Emergency sirens squeal constantly now and the sounds of those vehicles—blowing horns to warn drivers to get out of the way—can mean only one thing: the roads are not so impassable any longer.

But, the newest birds to arrive take me off guard. I look to the sky knowing that what I am hearing is a long way off but that it is moving swiftly enough to be in my sight any moment. I was right! A Chinook and a Black Hawk helicopter pass right by my window. I know these birds well—too well. They're the ones my son-in-law Todd flies while performing his duties as a member of the Army's Special Ops team. This time they're being flown by members of the Florida National Guard and their mission is a peaceful one. They are here to help maintain law and order, to distribute supplies to those in need, and to begin the process of recovering our infrastructure.

3:00 p.m. Is it really only an hour since those helicopters flew over here? Is it really only a little more than 24 hours since we emerged from Wilma's grip? I've lost all sense of time. Perhaps I should just try to remain in the moment and figure out how to define "normal" after all this. Better yet, perhaps it's time to do more than just browse at relocation information. Perhaps it's time to begin an exit strategy so that our days here on Hurricane Alley can be numbered!

November 4, 2005 Post script: It was Wilma + 8 before we were blessed with the return of power and water. Acts of hurricane preparedness still leave us wondering where this or that may be. We stand exhausted, contemplating whether it is safe to unpack some of what we stored in plastic for safe keeping. Hurricane season does, afterall, run all the way to the end of November. Guess I had better restock the non-perishable food items and bottled water and hope that at the end of hurricane season I can donate all of that unused hurricane food to a food bank. In years past, doing that was a great sense of stewardship. This year it takes on new meaning because I know that I could just as easily have been one of the thousands in need of such a gift in the days, weeks and months after Wilma's visit.

Last updated: 11/09/05