August 13, 2004.
My mom called me about 9:30 am. “Steph I think you should come over to the house. The storm is supposed to hit Tampa this afternoon and Dad says we’ll be getting very strong winds…I think it’s best you come stay with us, at least for the day.”
And so I grabbed my purse, my keys, the library book I was reading, threw on some Old Navy flip flops (MAJOR regret about the flip flops later) and walked out of my condo with hardly a glance back at anything.
It was the last time I’d see the place before the roof fell in on it.
Ten years ago today, my family survived ground zero of Hurricane Charley, a small, fast, bulldozer of a hurricane that hit the southwest coast of Florida.
It was an unexpected tragedy for our community. All hurricane centers and tracking experts had identified the Tampa/Clearwater area as the target of Charley’s wrath. The Tampa Bay area was a boarded up ghost town. Nursing homes and hospitals had been evacuated, everything was shut down, and people on the coastline were advised to leave town as quickly as possible.
Two hours south of Tampa in the sleepy coastal fishing town of Port Charlotte/Punta Gorda, my family was expecting strong winds, probably some landscaping damage, minor power outages, and the inconvenience of gas stations out of gas and milk and bread because Floridians always flipped out when Weather Channel storm tracker Jim Cantore said “hurricane!”
I headed over to my parents house, where my siblings and I enjoyed a day off work, kind of like a lazy Saturday afternoon where it looked and felt like rain.
My sisters and I made brownies around 3:30pm, joking that we’d better hurry so that they finished baking before the power went out.
My two brothers, ages 10 and 13 at the time, were having a blast outside. They were on their skateboards holding giant black garbage bags that caught the rising winds and sent them sailing down the driveway like they were water skiing. My younger sister got out the camcorder and declared she was going to be the official Wood family storm reporter.
It wasn’t until around 4:00 pm that we all started gathering around the television in the family room. Because something wasn’t right. The storm trackers weren’t talking all about Tampa Bay anymore. They had strange looks on their faces and uncertainty in their voices. And then one local regular-Joe weather guy said what everyone was thinking but seemed afraid to say…
“It looks like Charley is suddenly beginning to pick up speed. And he seems to have taken a very sudden, drastic couple ticks to the right. If that’s the case, it looks like we’ll have a new path for the eye of the storm.”
A few minutes later, all the news channels confirmed the new storm path: Hurricane Charley was headed straight for Charlotte Harbor, home to two retirement-heavy, fishing/boating/beach towns on the gulf coast. Two little towns who had not boarded up windows, evacuated homes and hospitals. Two little towns who didn’t have state emergency personnel and vehicles in place and waiting for the aftermath rescue to begin.
As the news came, so did instructions from emergency personnel. “Stay in your homes, get under mattresses or in bath tubs if you need to. Don’t try to evacuate and don’t try to go anywhere. There is no time.”
Charley was a Category 2 hurricane as he barreled towards the Gulf Coast from Cuba. By the time he slammed into Charlotte Harbor, Charley had increased speed to a Cat 4 storm. His deadly 150 mph max winds made him the most powerful hurricane to slam the coast since the 1960s.
It’s hard to describe what it was like during the storm. It was traumatic and exhausting, physically and emotionally. It was surreal. But I do remember a few things well.
Our ears hurt. A hurricane is an incredibly low pressure system, so it felt similar to a hard descent in an airplane, where your ears are hurting and popping and you want to swallow or chew gum to clear them.
It was loud. So incredibly loud. It kinda felt like you were standing right underneath the engine of a Boeing 747 about to take off.
It wasn’t just the level of noise that was scary though – it was the cacophony of sounds that didn’t make sense, making our fear more of the unknown than anything else. We could hear the roof being ripped off, piece by piece. We could hear things banging into the side of the house. Things being ripped apart, tumbled, crashed, banged. Glass windows and doors were breaking around the house, so you could hear the shattering of glass, and then the wind was inside the house too.
For the first half of the storm, we were all huddled in a hallway without windows in the bedroom section of my parents’ home. My mom sat on the floor with us kids.
My dad would check in with us, and then leave to patrol the house and monitor the storm. He was trying to make sure the structure of the roof would hold until it was over.
And then there was the calm. The eery, silent, not even a leaf moving on a tree calm.
We came out of our hiding places and looked with awe and horror at our home and street. Everything was a mess. It looked like the neighborhood at been put in a high speed blender without the top on.
After just a few minutes of looking around, the wind suddenly started to pick up again. From dead calm to fairly windy almost instantly.
And that’s when my parents realized: the storm was NOT over. Instead we were experiencing the eye of the storm.
I think that’s when it began to sink in how very serious our situation was. This was no outer bands wind from a storm. This was ground zero, dead center, the very worst of the fury that Hurrican Charley wished to impart.
Dad started yelling for everyone to get inside, get away from windows, get back into the hallway. He grabbed the mattresses off the kids bed, ordered us in the bathroom, and put the mattresses on top of us.
And then it began again.
By 6:30, it was over, and we all emerged in a half trance to gaze on the remnants of our home.
Glass was everywhere. E-VER-Y-WHERE. I have never been so mad at myself for wearing flip flops instead of running shoes as I was that day.
The hurricane was over, but the trauma and the tragedy was just beginning. Our town was now a disaster zone. Some people would leave our community in body bags. There was no power, no gas, no water, nothing.
For weeks. Some of it was off for months.
We cleaned up the glass on the floor as best we could, my Dad cooked some dinner for us late that night on his Coleman camping stove, and the new normal of life without all the stuff and pleasures and conveniences we had always been used to began.
For the first night, we slept around the house anywhere we could find a dry spot where the roof (that didn’t have any shingles on it anymore) wasn’t leaking. Water-sogged dry wall crashed down from the attic all night long.
The next weeks and months are kind of a blur. We worked for weeks to get the debris out of the house, tearing out drywall, working on the roof. (Dad always talks about the memory of all eight kids working on the roof together, in almost 100 degree weather, in a desperate attempt to save whatever could be salvaged from the house structure).
For the first month or so, my parents rented a mobile home trailer for us to live in. It was parked in the driveway. We ran essential power from a generator. We washed our hair outside when it rained. We used buckets of water carried in from our backyard pool (what was left of the pool) to flush the toilets inside.
After about a month, a realtor friend from our church found a home in town that had not been damaged from the storm, and that was available for rent. My family moved there for a whole year while the house was being rebuilt.
Surviving Hurricane Charley was a great tragedy and blessing in my life. It was epic. It was real and raw and we all learned so many, many things from the experience.
Tomorrow, I’ll share what I learned from surviving a natural disaster. Putting it into words on my blog, ten years later, is hard. But very good.