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The Xenophile Historian





THE HOLY BOOK OF UNIVERSAL TRUTHS,
K. U. P.


(Kimball's Unauthorized Perversion)





At Ground Zero in Florida's Year of Storms





The best way to describe the late summer of 2004 is that it has been a character-building time, not only for me, but for everyone in the state of Florida. In the course of a month we were hit by four major hurricanes, one of them a category 3 storm, two category 4s and one category 5 (the worst kind). Three of them struck close enough to affect me; in fact, I took a direct hit from the first, Hurricane Charley.

Mind you, people think Floridians are used to cyclonic storms like these. We are--to little ones. I understand that the last killer storm to hit my neighborhood was Donna, in 1960. In 38 years of living here, the storms I experienced were no worse than category 1. The main reason for this is the fact that the nearest beach is fifty miles away; hurricanes get their strength from warm water, so they've been tamed by the time they arrive here. As a result, a typical storm would knock down some trees, we'd miss a day of work, and then life would return to normal pretty quickly.



The Plywood State


Of Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne, Charley did the worst damage to my area, because it was the closest and it came with less warning than the others. I didn't see a map of its path through the metro area, but I believe the eye passed just a few miles west of us, over places like Eatonville and Lake Mary, because the winds didn't let up at any point during the middle of the storm. Unfortunately we don't have any windows on the west side of the house, so I only would have known for sure if I had gone outside! If you check a map of Florida's roads, Charley followed a path that almost exactly matched Highway 17, until it got to Volusia County, whereupon it went to sea instead of continuing north.

The first band of rain and wind reached us at 2:40 PM, on August 13. I saw a big disk-shaped cloud rapidly come in from the southwest, reminding me of the flying saucer that covered the sky in the movie "Independence Day." The second band arrived at 4 PM; both were no worse than a bad summertime thunderstorm. Then at 7:45 PM the storm began in earnest, when the heart of it arrived. The peak was between 9 and 10 PM, as the eye passed through Orange and Seminole counties. In our area the winds were a steady 65-70 MPH, with gusts of up to 105 reported at Orlando International Airport. During the worst hour, when I looked out the window, I saw lightning that was turned aqua or cyan in color, because there was so much moisture in the air. However, I didn't hear any thunder--either the lightning was too far away or the sound was drowned out by the wind.

By the time the lightning appeared, we were listening by battery-powered radio; the power went out at 8:57. We went to bed around 11, now that it was no longer prime-time. When I woke up again around 2 AM, it was all over.

Fortunately damage was minimal for us: one shingle missing from the roof, a branch through a screen window in the back, and the gate in the backyard is separated from the fence. Nothing that the insurance won't cover, and the neighbors had it worse; a block away, a big pine tree landed on two houses! My parents live in a neighborhood that's almost an old-growth forest, and they had several big trees come down on their property, including one that flattened a 1970 station wagon and blocked the driveway. The worst part in this house was going for 48 hours without electricity, and for five days without work, but even in that we are blessed; some neighborhoods lost power for as much as two weeks. I'll tell you one thing--there was celebration in our neighborhood when the lights came back on. Somebody even set off fireworks!

One member of our family wasn't affected much by the whole business--our cockatiel Chico. In the worst of the storm, he just sat on the perch in the dark and ground his beak, which I am told is a sign of contentment in birds. It was probably because we were all nearby, and we weren't acting overly panicked. For him the only hardship was that he couldn't watch any TV for the next two days (he seems to like PBS kiddie shows like Sesame Street, Boobah and Teletubbies, and any commercial with bird noises in the background; he also tries to imitate the test pattern from the Emergency Broadcast System).

Charley didn't kill anyone in my area, thank goodness; all the deaths occurred on the southwest coast where it came ashore. We were still picking up the pieces from Charley when Frances came our way. This time we had a week's warning, and took it seriously. We had similar notice when Hurricane Ivan came a week later. I can still remember going to the store before both storms to stock up on emergency supplies, mostly food that didn't require either refrigeration or cooking (chips, cans of tuna and soup, jello for the kid, etc.). In one store a wide-screen TV was showing the movie "Twister." As if we didn't have a real-life storm like that coming our way! When I went to stock up for Ivan, I saw how some folks passed the time without power; one guy pushed an empty shopping cart to the drink section, and proceeded to fill the whole thing with beer. When I asked him, "And what if Ivan doesn't come here?", he cheerfully answered, "I can still drink it!"

Fortunately Frances wasn't as bad as Charley; the eye missed my neighborhood by sixty miles. The difference was that Frances was much larger (the size of Texas in satellite pictures) and a much slower-moving storm, taking two whole days to pass us--most of the Labor Day weekend. In fact, Frances almost stopped around the Tampa area. Winds were about the same, and damage to the house was in roughly the same places: four more shingles gone, and part of the gutter coming loose.

Click here for an animation of Hurricane Frances passing through central Florida, as it appeared on the doppler radar of Wunderground.com at roughly six-hour intervals.
(550.7 KB, this will take a while to load!)

This time I experienced the storm alone, except for the pets. My wife couldn't come home from work because of a curfew on the streets, and my daughter evacuated with her grandmother. How did that go? Not too good! They went to a hotel in Gainesville, which should have been far enough north to escape the storm, but instead Frances turned in their general direction. As a result, they were stuck without power for two days, while I was only without power for half an hour. Go figure!

I did mention the pets. Chocolate the rabbit endured Charley in the backyard, with a bunch of blankets covering her cage to keep the wind and water out. For Frances I didn't want to take any chances, so Chocolate spent two and a half days in a shower stall, amusing herself by tearing up the newspaper I put on the floor, and pushing around the empty pie pan after eating the food I put in it. Chico the cockatiel was moved to the central hall, which I figured was the safest place for him if anything fell on the house. The hall was narrow and dark, and I never saw Chico as mad as he was there; every time I passed by, he would hiss or give an angry squawk. Finally, late in our second "blustery day," I moved his cage back to the living room; though he could see the wind playing with the trees outside, and the TV was showing weather reports instead of the shows he likes, he cheered up right away!

Initially, Ivan missed us completely, though it returned four days later as a tropical depression and dropped some rain on us. It came ashore between Pensacola and Mobile, hitting the part of the state that had not been drenched by Charley and Frances. Then at the end of September, one more storm, Jeanne, came our way, after having drowned 1,100 in Haiti. For us, Jeanne turned out to be a repeat of Frances; it also struck during the weekend, and this time the main difference was that no relatives got out of town. Jeanne did the least amount of damage to us, too; I think Charley and Frances had already taken care of everything that was going to be destroyed. Too bad I can't say the same for the east coast; there was so much erosion on the beaches, for example, that I think we ought to rename Daytona Beach "Daytona Cliffs."



Tracks of the 4 Storms
Here are the paths the four storms took through Florida. Those of Frances and Jeanne are not shown separately, as they were never more than ten miles apart.


Between the three storms, more than 80 people were killed in Florida, and damage worth at least $40 billion was inflicted. I can't go anywhere without seeing wreckage from the storms: buildings with missing roofs, brick walls knocked over, boarded-up windows, broken or bent-double trees that were once as thick and as straight as columns. It took until the end of hurricane season (November 30) to clean up most of the piles of branches and logs lying around, and the ground was so soggy that it took the rest of the year to dry out completely. For two whole months, from the second week of August until mid-October, about the only topic of conversation here was the weather. We didn't talk much about this year's elections, though Florida was one of the so-called "battleground states," and most of us didn't even notice the Olympics, because we didn't have electricity while the games were on TV. It wasn't until I heard my co-workers talking about the World Series that I knew life was returning to normal.

(Update, June 2005: We're now beginning a new hurricane season, but ten months after Charley, broken signs and blue tarp-covered roofs are still a common sight.)

At the college where I teach, several teaching days were canceled on account of the weather; worst hit was my Saturday class, which I only met with twice during the first month of the semester! Between Frances and Ivan, the dean sent an e-mail announcing that if anyone feels too stressed out, meditation classes are being offered in a little building down the road that calls itself "Hindu University of Central Florida." A sense of humor also made it a lot easier to keep your head. Here's an e-mail I received entitled "What I Learned About Hurricanes in Florida in 2004"; we can all relate to everything listed here:

Some things I learned in Florida this past month:

  1. Coffee and frozen pizzas can be made on a BBQ grill.
  2. No matter how many times you flick the switch, lights don't work without electricity.
  3. Kids can survive 4 plus days without a video game controller in their hands.
  4. Cats are really irritating without power.
  5. He who has the biggest generator wins.
  6. Women can actually survive without doing their hair--you just wish they weren't around you.
  7. A new method of non-lethal torture - showers without hot water. This is for the lucky ones on city water. If you have a well and no generator, it's time to bathe in the pool!
  8. TV is an addiction and the withdrawal symptoms are painful.
  9. A 7-pound bag of ice will chill a six-pack of beer to a drinkable temperature in 11 minutes, and still keep a 14-pound turkey frozen for 8 more hours.
  10. There are a lot of trees around here.
  11. Flood plan drawings on some mortgage documents were seriously wrong.
  12. Contrary to most Florida natives' beliefs, the speed limit on roads without traffic lights does not increase.
  13. Aluminum siding, while aesthetically pleasing, is definitely not required to keep your house standing, and during wind surges becomes flying weapons.
  14. Just because you're over 21 doesn't mean you can stay out as late as you want. At least that's what the cops told me during a curfew stop.
  15. Crickets can increase their volume to overcome the sound of 14 generators.
  16. People will get into a line that has already formed without having any idea what the line is for.
  17. When required, most any vehicle will float--doesn't steer well, but floats just the same.
  18. Hurricanes do keep the mailman from his appointed rounds.
  19. Telemarketers function no matter what the weather is doing.
  20. Cell phones sometimes work when land lines are down, but only as long as the battery remains charged.
  21. Twenty-seven of your neighbors are fed from a different transformer than you, and they are quick to point that out!
  22. Laundry hampers were not made to contain such a volume.
  23. If I had a store that sold only ice, chainsaws, gas, and generators . . . I'd be rich.
  24. The price of a bag of ice rises 200% after a hurricane.
  25. Your water front property can quickly become someone else's fishing hole.
  26. Tree service companies are under appreciated.
  27. Hurricane Math: 30 days in a month, minus 6 days without power, equals a 30% higher electric bill ?????
  28. Drywall is a compound word, take away the "dry" part and it's worthless.
  29. Florida will not see a baby boom in 9 months. Things are already too hot and sticky. Why add to the mess!
Finally, I have been told that I no longer have to worry about relatives visiting during the summer months, and we may see a population decrease, if others feel the same way as the fellow who put up this sign in his Brevard County yard:

1 Charley
2 Frances
3 Ivan
4 Sale

And this may be why hurricanes are attracted to Florida:

Ivan's Dream



Click for Winter Park, Florida Forecast





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