Weathering the Storm

Charley begs a few questions

click to enlarge HANDS ON: Veronica Gilbert, with aid from her - mother, tapes windows on her home in Tampa. - GWENDOLYN RODRIGUEZ
HANDS ON: Veronica Gilbert, with aid from her mother, tapes windows on her home in Tampa.

We survived. No news there. Tampa Bay's near-miss has become almost as infamous as the damage Charley actually inflicted.Around the Planet office, the reactions to Charley's rampage were characteristically mixed. Copy editor David Bramer, always alert to breaches of social justice, observed that such disasters always aggravate class inequities: the poor and uninsured suffer so much more than those wealthy enough to build houses that last. Senior VP Doug Tuthill, a St. Pete native who's been through all kinds of stormy Central Florida weather, thinks hurricanes are essentially marketing tools. Tornadoes and thunderstorms threaten lives regularly in our region, he points out, but nothing fills cashiers' coffers faster than a good dose of hurri-steria.

Not all longtime residents felt the same. Senior ad rep Scott Zepeda has lived in the area 16 years, but he believed there was good reason to be scared of Charley (maybe because he lives in a high-priority evacuation zone). Then again, Scene & Herdster Scott Harrell is a relative newcomer, but (as you'll see in his column) he's an old hand when it comes to ignoring signs of impending meteorological doom.

Me, I was asking lots of questions (hence all the answers). I've lived in cities where blizzards and rain stop traffic, but I've never had to evacuate my home. I've never been so close to a storm that shattered so many lives.

I guess I just needed to be reassured: This one was different, right?

At first all the commotion was fun. The last time I'd been through a hurricane was too many years ago to count, when I was a kid on Cape Cod. Here, finally, was The Big One.

It didn't take long for the giddiness to wear off. At home Friday morning, as my partner Larry and I began piling furniture on top of furniture, getting anything off the floor that might suffer from flood damage — we live in a "B" evac area — the larkish mood was supplanted by the steady thrum of nerves, and unnerving questions: What do I take? What do I leave? What is this apartment going to look like when we return?

As we drove away, headed for the Hilton in Ybor, I understood maybe for the first time that something real was happening. The boarded-up windows. The SUVs in driveways with hatchbacks up, ready to be loaded with belongings. Eerily empty Bayshore Boulevard. The mix of panic and absurdity on talk radio: "Should I fill my bathtub with water?" Underneath it all, a quiet but authentic current of fear.

At the hotel, the mood was upbeat, yet wary. A woman from Green Bay, Wis., said she'd come all this way just to be with her daughter, who was working the front desk. Guests were arriving for a Saturday wedding; they'd flown in from Boston and Denver and looked relieved they'd made it this far, but wondered what tomorrow would bring. (The cake arrived a day early; the bakery was closing for the hurricane and couldn't guarantee the next-day pick-up.) Roving bands of businessmen made pilgrimages to the ice machine. A little boy named TJ rode up and down in the elevator most of the day, eventually appointing himself elevator operator. ("I think I ought to get paid," he told one passenger.) The Hilton had readied itself with board games, flashlights and extra food, said affable desk clerk Carter Ward, who was himself an evacuee.

It felt like vacation, but it was really a vigil. We watched TV. And watched. And watched. And watched.

Then, slowly, the shift occurred. There are conflicting reports as to which TV weatherman predicted it first — a distinction which matters more to weathermen and their paychecks than it does to the rest of us, I suspect — but intermittently, then inexorably, it became clear that the Bay area would once more dodge a bullet.

At that point, though, I wasn't quite sure what bullet we'd dodged. Charley's change in course was a relief, yes, but it was also a letdown. After all the worry, all the work, I'd hoped for at least a little bit of payoff — a big howling wind, maybe, a few shingles torn off or tree branches broken.

The Punta Gorda pictures changed all that.

In our coverage elsewhere in this issue, Scott Harrell talks about the moment he saw these pictures, and Eric Snider interviews the TV newsman who first showed them to us. By now the world has seen shots of the devastation from every possible angle, but those first visuals had a special resonance, especially for Bay area residents: We knew, suddenly, what we'd missed.

"Fun," indeed.

As the hurricane moved on, the TV stations did, too. Larry and I took a walk down deserted Seventh Avenue in Ybor City as the last streak of sun disappeared in the west. The light was unearthly, the ambience Twilight Zone, but we still chuckled a bit at the thoroughness of some of the security measures: Victoria's Secret had wrapped just about everything in the store in neat plastic bundles; Blue Devil Tattoo had not only taped its plate glass window, but its display case far inside the shop as well. Then we remembered the blown-out buildings we'd just seen on TV; maybe these over-cautious proprietors had had the right idea. Or maybe nothing could have protected them.

We returned to our apartment on Saturday morning. The place was a post-evacuation mess. Still, more than any moment in these last two months, it felt good to be home.

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